This month, I've got another free short essay for everyone. Based on my experience discussing asexuality and aromanticism and with encountering ace and aro panels online in various ways (which frequently, to be honest, does not inspire me to want to attend any since they often all seem to replicate the same basic issues), I've compiled a general lits of Dos and Don'ts. You can probably apply them to more topics than asexuality and aromanticism and more types of content than talks or panels.
13 Dos and Don'ts for Ace and Aro Panels and Talks
For the science fiction and fantasy community, summer tends to be award season, and award season means high-profile conventions. While I rarely have the opportunity to attend any, I do always enjoy seeing what gets discussed by looking at the programming. For the past few years, I’ve noticed an uptick on panels discussing asexuality (and through conflation aromanticism) and, I’ll be honest, have only rarely been impressed by what I’ve seen or heard about them.
This year, I ran into a couple that were just actively painful to read through or hear about, so I wanted to compile a brief posts on some dos and don’ts to help anyone planning a panel on asexuality and aromanticism present, well, a better panel that will achieve what you set out to do.
So how do you set up a panel about asexuality and aromanticism? What are some of the things to keep in mind when working on creating an inclusive, welcoming panel? Here are some of the dos and don’ts of discussing ace and aro representation.
DO host an Asexuality and Aromanticism 101 panel if that’s what you feel the convention needs. You’ll get complains from aces and aros who are having more advanced discussions, but the truth is that a lot of people still need that 101 discussion and panels at conventions are a great way to introduce asexuality and aromanticism to people. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to present a 101 conversation about asexuality and aromanticism. Just be aware that if you’re going for this kind of conversation, you need to make sure you’re covering the basics properly. If you pay attention to the others dos and don’ts, you’ll end up with a fantastic and informative panel that will allow people who need the introduction to start figuring out more.
DON’T conflate aromanticism and asexuality. Though there’s overlap, these are two different communities and, more importantly, two different orientation spectrums. Asexuality is a sexual orientation; aromanticism is a romantic orientation. These two identities are not interchangeable and if you want to host a panel on asexuality that conflates it with aromanticism, you end up erasing and hurting about half of the people you’re trying to reach. This conflation is extremely common, especially in 101 discussions, and simply making sure you and panellists acknowledge the difference will go a very long way towards creating an inclusive, welcoming panel.
DO include aromanticism in your panel’s title if you want to discuss both asexuality and aromanticism. Relatedly, if a convention uses a system that lets them tag programme items with keywords, please ask them to include aromanticism as a tag. It may seem like a small thing, but simply acknowledging aromanticism as a separate identity this way will put a lot of wary people at ease.
DON’T sandwich aromanticism in between different identities on the asexual spectrum. (Or, vice versa.) These are two different orientations and identities, so please do not present them in such a conflated manner. By presenting the identities this way, even though you’re probably simply listing them in the order you think of them, you’re perpetuating the idea that these terms are interchangeable.
DO organise topics at your comfort level. I started this by saying it’s okay to host introductory panels. It is likewise okay to host ones that are more advanced. And just like there are a lot of people who want to go to the 101 panels to begin learning about asexuality and aromanticism, there are plenty of people who’ll want to see something more advanced. It’s your panel, so if you’ve got a topic you want to discuss, go for it!
DON’T misspell orientations. Yes, that’s happened. Spelling can be a little bit dicey because different communities have different preferences. It isn’t just regional spelling differences (such as ‘grey’ vs ‘gray’), but there are also personal spelling preferences to take into account. If you’re not sure how to spell something, go with the global consensus. For example: it’s spelled “demisexual”, same as every other orientation ending in -sexual, not “demi-sexual” with a hyphen. The latter is still used as a way to discredit demisexuality as an orientation and serves as a red flag to people to suggest that your panel is unsafe for them.
DO let people know if your panel has aces and/or aros on it, if your panellists are comfortable with people knowing this. That last part is crucial. Don’t out your (fellow) panellists, so only do this if you have their permission to mention it. This will really help aces and aros who’ve been hurt by attending panels in the past feel safe attending. Having a panel about asexuality and/or aromanticism with no visible aces or aros on it is… kind of like having a discussion on the state of SFF in Europe filled with panellists from America. Those panellists mean well and they may know a great deal of really interesting information, but you end up silencing the voices you’re trying to uplift.
DON’T erase part of the spectrums in your descriptions. By that I don’t mean “make sure you mention every orientation specifically”, but “acknowledge that asexuality and aromanticism are spectrums”. Both ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ are used as a specific identity on these spectrums and as an umbrella term for that spectrum, so make sure people can tell when you’re using it as an umbrella term! Some orientations (such as greysexuals) get virtually no representation in fiction since the bulk of the representation goes to asexuals and demisexuals. It’s okay if that means your panel leans towards covering more frequently encountered aspects of asexuality or aromanticism. It’s just a matter of acknowledging that the spectrums are wider and larger than your topic covers and making people feel welcome because you acknowledged they exist.
DO look up (and read!) some recent ace and aro representation titles before your panel. If you have the time, try to get a general feel of what ace and aro readers think of it as well. Yes, this is important even if you’re ace and/or aro yourself. Your feelings are not indicative of the community as a whole and understanding where people’s opinions differ from yours will help make your discussion of these books stronger.
DON’T rely on the visibility of a handful of well-known titles to discuss the state of asexual and aromantic representation in fiction. The bulk of ace and aro representation published today is published by small presses and indie authors, so be sure to take a look at those. (Claudie Arseneault’s AroAce Database is a very good starting point.) If you look at small presses and indie releases, you’ll be able to find a fair number of incredibly good books that could use the visibility boost. As a bonus, there is a very high chance that these are authors who are openly ace-spec or aro-spec themselves. Even if you don’t want to look at small presses or indie authors, look beyond the handful that everyone’s heard about. Give yourself half an hour to google titles and I’m sure you’ll find some lesser known mainstream titles to discuss or mention on your panel.
DO try to collect a list of the books you (and your fellow panellists) mention and make it available online. It’s okay if this doesn’t turn out to be an exact match to what was said, but the effort will be incredibly appreciated by readers looking for these books. Not everyone will be able to attend your panel and you can’t rely on having an audience member livetweeting your recommendations for others to find. If you compile a recommendations list yourself, though, and make sure it’s easily found online, you’ll increase the chances that your recommendations will do what you want them to: get people to explore those books.
DON’T go about recommending books that you don’t stand behind because they’re popular and it’s the done thing. People will be able to tell when your recommendations are insincere. If you genuinely hated the representation in a book where seemingly everyone else loved it, it’s okay not to recommend it at all. It’s (probably) also okay to add warnings to someone else’s recommendations so people can make informed choices.
DO trust people to know what will or won’t hurt them. If you’re asexual and/or aromantic and absolutely loved the representation in a book the majority seems to hate, you’re allowed to discuss or recommend it based on your experience. It’s not less valid because it’s different. Just, if you’re in this situation, try to give people all appropriate warnings and caveats, so they can make an informed choice. Don’t rely on others to do that for you.
These last two points really revolve around one key thing to keep in mind when you’re looking for books to discuss or recommend on your panel: Asexuality and aromanticism are not monoliths and what hurt you may be what someone else needs and what you desperately needed may do someone else a great deal of harm. Keep that difference in mind and make sure your audience has the tools to make educated decisions about the books you’re discussing or recommending. You don’t know what will or won’t hurt them. They do.
And that’s it! These 13 points should give you a pretty solid foundation for setting up a talk or a panel on asexuality and/or aromanticism. Keep these points in mind and you’ll be able to cover any topic whilst appealing to people at various levels of understanding of the issues faced by aces and aros. I hope you’ll have fun setting up your talk or panel and, who knows, hopefully one day I’ll get to attend it and congratulate you on an amazing panel!