Congratulations to AJ Adler, one of the recipients of the 2023—24 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships!

We are honored to share AJ’s application essay here:

My name is AJ Adler, she / they pronouns, and I’d like to focus on LGBT+ media. Specifically, I would like to discuss asexuality and aromanticism in the media. Recently there has been an uptick in LGBT+ characters in mainstream media, and an attempt at representation, with varying degrees of success. However, throughout most of history, and still in many places today, there has been an active suppression of LGBT+ content in media available for people of all ages, meaning that content creators often don’t have access to resources that mainstream media often has. This suppression, whether intentional or not, has disproportionately affected the asexual and aromantic communities. The consequences of which are not only that the communities need to actively look for material that represents them, but also that that material, while written with a lot of love and heart, often hasn’t been researched, edited, or marketed properly. I would like to change that.

My own experience with the LGBT+ community is a complicated one. I’m aromantic asexual. Asexuality, the quality of not experiencing sexual attraction, is often referred to as the invisible orientation. This is because many people don’t believe that asexuality exists. This belief is reflected in mainstream media, where almost every book, movie, TV show I’ve ever come across has a romantic, and many times sexual, subplot. Now, being a lover of drama, I actually have enjoyed romance stories, and even wrote a thesis on looking at similar romantic themes in historical fiction for my undergraduate thesis. However, the constant reiteration that romance is the only thing that can make you fully happy can be terrifying to someone who doesn’t feel that way. It’s hard to believe that there’s nothing wrong with you when all of the media you see says that the only thing that will make you happy is the opposite of everything you’re comfortable with. Not only that, because of both my asexuality and enjoyment of romantic stories, I can personally attest that many emotions characterized as “proof” that you have romantic feelings for someone are nothing of the sort, which ultimately hurts the audience in learning how to contextualize their feelings.

I know what it’s like to be so excited to talk to a friend that it makes my week. I have felt jealousy over a friend hanging out with others, irrational as it is. I know what it’s like to want to move states away just to be with someone. For a long time, I thought that had to mean I wanted to be in a relationship because what else could it be? You’re happy when they’re around? You must be in love. You’re jealous of others in their life? You must be in love. It wasn’t until I actually had a relationship that I realized this wasn’t what I wanted at all. Friendships can have just as much of an impact on a person as a romance, and saying “it’s romance” meant I was confused and frustrated with myself for having seemingly opposite reactions to the same situation. Even after I realized what was going on, I ignored it at first because I didn’t want to be alone all my life. Labeling myself as aro ace meant that I would lose that image of an epic romance that had been conditioned in me to want since I was a child.

This isn’t just limited to me. A lot of asexuals and aromantics have similar experiences not feeling comfortable with who they are due to the assumption that it is inherently natural or human to wish for sex or romance supported by mainstream media. This is exacerbated by the fact that the media likes to link alienness or neurodivergence to asexuality as a way of grouping “otherness” together. When there is an asexual character, it’s often either an alien race that doesn’t understand emotions, or a neurodivergent character who also doesn’t understand emotions. “They’re the other, so they must not want sex.” or “They don’t want sex, so they must be the other.” This hurts the asexual and neurodivergent communities because it perpetuates the idea that every difference is the same difference, as well as treating sex as the basis for normalcy. The lack of sex becomes a shorthand to the audience that this character is different, which only reinforces the idea that actual, real people are unnatural because of their lack of romantic or sexual interest in others.

I want to help change this mindset. Many of the stories that I have found representation in are on the internet, a place that has an extreme variety of amateur content. I’ve seen amazing stories, but I’ve also seen terrible works that, while I’m sure the writer’s heart was in the right place, could use an edit or two. In-depth research or professional backing could help these writers shine. I would like to offer that.

I am planning on using my degree in Book Publishing to find an internship or assistant position in an LGBT+ friendly publishing company and working my way up until I have an amount of control over the content we publish, or potentially to start my own publishing agency to have direct control over it. In the meantime, I will also reach out to content creators and see if they would like an editor on their projects, so I can put what I learn to use in my own community and help those with what I know now. I want to be the person that reaches out, so that people like me can find content that will help them figure out who they are, because we do exist, and we should be seen.

The 2023—24 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships are awarded in honor of Indigo: Editing, Design, and More and poet Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa. Scholarships are awarded annually to incoming students to the Ooligan Press Master’s in Publishing program at Portland State University. Learn more here.