Three years ago, Cody Daigle-Orians struggled to say the words "I am asexual" out loud.
After a chance encounter on social media, connecting with members of the community and working with a therapist helped him sort through his feelings and come into his identity. Since March, he has been giving advice on asexuality and facilitating discussions with tens of thousands of people through Ace Dad Advice, his network of social media accounts.
Daigle-Orians, 45, is married and lives in Hartford, Connecticut, with his husband, Neil. Identifying as gay for most of his life, he said he had heard of the asexual or "ace" community, but didn't fully understand what it was until he joined Tumblr about three years ago as a way to kill time. When he stumbled across posts from the ace community, they struck a chord.
"In connecting with these posts, I recognized huge chunks of my life and experience and ... started to realize that what I had already assumed as my experiences -- maybe being kind of broken or feeling these inadequacies -- was really my experience of asexuality. I just didn't know it," he told ABC News.
"That doesn't mean that I never have sex or that I never want physical intimacy or a relationship. It just means that I don't experience sexual attraction. The spectrum of experience can encompass everything from nothing at all to a whole host of things. But fundamentally, that's really what asexuality is. It's just I don't experience sexual attraction the way other people do," he added.
Asexuality is not considered a medical issue by the American Psychiatric Association, but there are sexual issues that can be confused for it, such as female sexual interest/arousal disorder. However, the organization's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM-V, notes that, "If a lifelong lack of sexual desire is better explained by one's self-identification as 'asexual,' then a diagnosis [...] would not be made."
"I think there is an assumption that asexuality is an experience of absence, or that it's about not having or not wanting anything," Daigle-Orians said. "That is not true about most ace people. There is as much diversity inside the asexual community and the way that asexual folks experience sexuality as there is in the rest of culture. We are not all the same and we are not approaching our identities from a place of absence."
Joining the community
In March 2021, Daigle-Orians started playing around with TikTok at the urging of his barber and posted a video where he identified himself as asexual. The reaction from the community was startling.
"I started to get like a ton of comments from people, young people specifically, saying, 'Wow, I've never seen an ace person that looks like you,' 'I didn't know ace adults existed,' 'I've never seen an older ace person ever,' 'I thought it was just a bunch of 20-year-olds,'" he said.
Daigle-Orians told ABC News that having access to elder mentors in the gay community was a huge benefit to him earlier in life, and when he connected with a young ace community who didn't have that, he figured, "I am now old enough to be an elder." He decided that he would start making videos for the younger folks who needed it.
It felt like a natural step for someone who had worked as an artist and a teacher, so he launched Ace Dad Advice to post videos addressing topics of interest to the ace community. Many of the videos respond to questions from followers trying to figure out their own identities, and how they interact with the LGBTQIA+ community and society at large.
"I really expected it to be primarily young people, but it's not the case at all. I'm also talking to people who are married and in their 40s, who are coming to asexuality for the first time," he said.
If he can't answer a question, he said he will often toss it back to the community.
"One of the cool things about the ace community online is that they are a very supportive community and are willing to participate and help people out," he said. "If I don't know something, there is definitely someone in my little digital network that does."
Teaching and learning at the same time
For Daigle-Orians, making his first steps into the ace community and connecting with peers was incredibly powerful.
"It seems like such a simple thing that everybody should instinctively know that they're not broken. It took me a while to believe it, but hearing it was a really good start," he said.
Researcher Anthony Bogaert from Brock University in Canada proposed 1% of the general population as a "working figure" for the prevalence rate of asexuality, but a spokesperson for the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, or AVEN, told ABC News that limited awareness of asexuality as an orientation has been a challenge when trying to determine an accurate count.
AVEN was formed in 2001 with the goal of facilitating discourse and building a community for ace people, and the organization said that membership has grown to more than 135,000 on its English-language online forums. It said that a strong ace presence has emerged on social media platforms, resources like The Asexual Agenda and What is Asexuality? are available online and other organizations have emerged around the world, but some say representation in popular culture is still relatively scarce.
Some notable recent examples of characters with asexual narratives include Jughead Jones from the "Archie" comics and Todd from the animated series "Bojack Horseman."
"Asexuality has always existed as a sexual orientation and as an experience that people had, but it's only recently that it has a culture. So I feel like we're still very early in the stages of just getting people to understand who ace people are. We are still understanding who ace people are ourselves," Daigle-Owens told ABC News. But he is optimistic that as time goes on, more ace characters and stories told by ace people will emerge.
In the meantime, he will continue to engage with the community through Ace Dad Advice.
"People from all walks of life, people at all stages in their lives, have reached out to say that they connect with something that I'm doing. So that's been awesome," he said. "A lot of the people that I talk to really just want to be told that what they've experienced and who they are is OK, and is valid, and that there is a life ahead when you are who we are."