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First Person

My dad was asexual. I wish he could have told me before he died

Having free and open conversations about sexuality, unconstrained by so-called ‘culture warriors’, means a lot to Oliver Keens – who found out too late that the father he thought he knew had a sad and private secret

Thursday 06 April 2023 16:53 BST
‘The fact that someone I love felt unable to discuss his orientation for his entire life has slowly made me furious with the world in the years since I found out’
‘The fact that someone I love felt unable to discuss his orientation for his entire life has slowly made me furious with the world in the years since I found out’ (Shutterstock)

In the midst of a slow and tumultuous mid-pandemic break-up with my partner, there was an evening when I couldn’t take it any more and had to get out. I ended up at my mum’s house, a few miles away. I got there around midnight, in a state. My mum – who has never been much of a drinker – acknowledged the seriousness of the situation by rummaging in an obscure drawer before offering some unidentifiable brown liquor from a dusty bottle. And so, we sat in silence, until eventually she said: “I hate to ask you this, but... do you still have sexual desire?” I said “Yes”, and she shivered with relief. “Oh thank GOD,” she said. Why did she ask? “Well, I’ve never told you this before, but your father was asexual. We made you, and then... nothing. I was worried you might be... the same as your father.”

My dad was a lovely man. He died in 2014. He was quiet, kind, and exceptionally easy-going. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. Having battled cancer for years, he miraculously held out just long enough to meet his first grandchild before he passed. I wanted to become a dad because I felt like I’d learnt from the best. Regrettably, though, I’m not as easy-going as him: the fact that someone I love felt unable to discuss his orientation and keep his sexuality a secret for his entire life has slowly made me furious with the world in the years since I found out.

Asexual people don’t feel sexual attraction for others. Asexual people are born that way. After much investigation, there’s never been a proven link to events, hormones, depression or psychological factors. It is simply an innate, involuntary and unchangeable way that some people are. Me and my dad were close, but around sex there was always an eerie void – like the initial seconds after a giant chimney stack has been destroyed in a controlled explosion.

There was a soft naivety to him that felt very odd to me at the time, especially during the hormonal rollercoaster that is male puberty. Around that age, some kids accidentally walked in on their parents doing it, others found their parent’s porn collection. Not a bit of it round my way. The one and only time I saw my parents kiss romantically was at my eighth birthday party, when some random person goaded them into it (weirdly this was in an Eighties video bar, so every screen in the place carried a close-up of this once-in-a-lifetime frenching).

When my mum first used the word “asexual”, I knew immediately that they must have sought some outside help. There was no way either of them would be aware of a term within a broad umbrella of different sexualities and genders. It’s inconceivable that he knew he was an A in LGBTQA+. I instantly feel a nervous need to state that he was not a bigot in any way: I just don’t know a scenario where he would have been exposed to alternative sexualities. My dad never went to university, so never met a huge gaggle of people, and would not have stumbled upon LGBT+ societies (or specifically asexual ones) as part of his freshers fair, for example. He never had an office job, either, so had fewer social interactions than most. He worked the last 15 years of his life in a mostly solitary fashion, as a delivery driver.

It’s funny thinking about my old man – an F1 fan in ironed jeans – existing in an LGBT+ context. It’s also frustrating that there’s anything funny about it in the first place. Do a Google News search for “LGBT” and words like “controversy”, “debate”, “protests” and “row” seem to permanently attach themselves like parasites. And yet there’s something comic about confronting the self-styled “culture warriors” out there – people hell-bent on stopping discussions of sexuality – with a grey-haired white guy from Essex with an Autosport subscription and a habit of tucking his T-shirt into his Y-fronts. A guy who demographically looks exactly like them, yet on the inside had a complexity that would take them 1,000 years to grapple with. This is what people who actively try to stifle any discussion of gender or sexuality forget: they think they’re talking in the abstract, without realising that their best mate might be asexual, their daughter might be a lesbian, their young cousin might be a “they”.

It makes me constantly sad that he probably never met another asexual person, let alone felt part of a community that might have made him feel much less marginalised

Through the prism of my dad and his asexuality, I’ve worried that the battle to promote LGBT+ rights has too often been synonymous with people who are young, trendy and effing cool – three things he was effing not. With regard to asexuality especially, people often realise their orientation much later in life than is the case with other sexualities. That view was upended last year, though, when I went to Margate Pride, which was easily the best Pride event in the country, but also had real, genuine asexual representation that was magic to see. In particular an almost angelic young couple, one wearing a T-shirt saying “I ☆ my asexual girlfriend”, the other’s declaring “I ☆ asexual representation”. It blew my mind, and made me imagine how much my dad would have benefited from small acts of visibility like this in his lifetime.

My mum is still alive, so she can tell her own story of what it was like being married to an asexual man. As the son of an asexual man, though, I find myself talking about his asexuality a lot – almost as a way of trying belatedly to bond with someone whose sexuality was, in the words of Julie Sondra Decker’s influential book on the subject, “the invisible orientation”. It makes me constantly sad that he probably never met another asexual person, let alone felt part of a community that might have made him feel much less marginalised. I feel annoyed that the prevailing stereotypes from his youth, about what a man is and should be, probably never left his head. I worry he felt deficient in some way. But mostly I’m annoyed that he may have felt shame, even for a moment, about talking to me about it – a son who loved him dearly. It honestly breaks my heart.

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