On Labels and What They Need

blank labelsOr rather, what I need from them.

This is a short post on label formation for this month’s Carnival of Aces on identity, labels, and models.

On the one hand, it’s not unheard of for people to discover a label that works for them and feel immediate relief upon seeing the word next to the definition.  That’s a valid experience.  It’s just as valid, however, to take the scenic route.

I’m talking about the experience of staring at the words in front of you and thinking “But what does that mean, though?”  I’m talking weeks of research and doubt and waffling.  But mostly what I have in mind is the inadequacy of Label (adj.): definition as the key to unlocking identification & the psychological necessity of seeing it spelled out in detailed, personal, narrative form in order to feel comfortable enough to describe yourself as One Of Those.  I’m talking about needing to read whole stories, dozens of them, before you’ll take on a new label for yourself.

Some people might not need all that.  But I do, a lot of the time.

A lot of the time, the word by itself is just not enough.

I can’t decide “yeah, that’s me” if I don’t have a sense of what it looks like, so to speak.

This mental requirement of mine has revealed itself in the different outcomes of looking into the asexual spectrum vs. my attempts to research various nonbinary genders.  Admittedly, gender may be more tricky to describe or pin down by nature, but I’ve found accounts of what it’s like to be ace/demi/gray-a to be more numerous, detailed, and easy to track down than accounts of what it’s like to be agender/genderfluid/bigender/etc.  Maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.  Regardless, I’ve concluded that this is a necessary part of the identification process for me: to form an understanding of a label through stories.  The same holds true for my understanding of other identities that I have no suspicion of being applicable to myself, too — I learn better through stories than through abstract, generalized statements of description.

What I’ve gleaned from this is that anyone looking to coin and popularize a new label might see those interests better served by circulating stories rather than PSAs.  For me, at least, a label comes to have meaning through its surrounding discourse.  That’s why my identification as gray-a is what it is as much as my ??? sentiment toward gender is what it isn’t.

So when I see some of that old “okay this is too many little subdivisions now” response toward the myriad of specific romantic orientations and gender identities, even within the ace community, some of that may just be stubbornness, but I also think some of this phenomenon may be at play — the need to see stories in order to grasp what the label is good for.  And so while I still advocate asking people their reasons rather than assuming the worst, I’d still like to see more stories, too.

The responsibility doesn’t fall to any one person.  It’s not even a responsibility at all.  But for those actively looking to help a particular label gain traction: I hope you take this into consideration.

Likewise, I think this has particular relevance to ace advice givers dealing with the “Am I asexual?” question in their inbox (and here’s a handy guide to how to handle that, btw) (and here’s some related reading and Queenie’s advice-advice, in case you missed that too).  Even if you give someone asking “does XYZ disqualify me from identifying as ace” the right answer (hint: the answer is always no), the fact that they’re even asking at all should tell you something.  They probably haven’t found many stories of ace experiences yet (or maybe just not any related to that particular point of inquiry).

Just saying, “yes, you can still be ace,” might not be the best way to help them, if they’re anything like me.

20 responses to “On Labels and What They Need

  • luvtheheaven

    This all rings so completely true to me. ;)

  • Klaaraa

    “take the scenic route”. you are so lovely.

  • 6 Things That Made Me Realize I’m an Aromantic Asexual | Flying While Falling Down

    […] individual process. So, the experiences I’m describing are only mine. However, I agree with The Ace Theist that personal stories are often the most enlightening when it comes to figuring out whether you […]

  • lengray

    Hi there! I hope you don’t mind, but I added a linkback to this on my post ‘6 Things That Made Me Realize I’m an Aromantic Asexual’

  • queenieofaces

    Ohhh, I have a very similar reaction to labels, in that knowing “asexuality” was a thing was waaaay less useful to me than reading asexual people’s experiences. Also, a lot of the labels that only have PSAs circulating, I can define them for you, but I don’t necessarily have a good idea of what that experience is like in practice, so, yeah, please more experiences, fewer reiterations of the same definition.

    Also, I have a very similar issue with gender, in that I genuinely don’t seem to have a good grasp of what gender experiences are like for any of the gender spaces (?) I may or may not inhabit. I think part of that, though, is that sexual orientation at least gives you goalposts–individual experiences may vary a lot, but at least you know if you’re attracted to nobody, asexual is an option. On the other hand, a lot of the explanations of gender I’ve found have been very “You know it if you feel it,” which is…sort of a problem if you can’t use anyone else or any feelings you have as a reference point; any individual feeling you have about gender can be had by anybody of any gender unless that feeling is “I am [whatever gender].” I don’t doubt that a lot of people have that internal gender feeling, but if you don’t have that…”you’ll know it if you feel it” is pretty unhelpful.

  • Kasey Weird

    If you don’t mind a little bit of shameless self-promotion, I’ve been specifically trying to address the issue of it sometimes being hard to find personal narratives about people’s experiences of their gender (esp. when it’s non-binary.) The list of posts I’ve made collecting links to various people’s perspectives is here:

  • elainexe

    I do like reading experiences for a lot of things. Though I didn’t for asexuality. Probably because one of my good friends suggested it and I trusted their judgement.
    Something like romantic orientation is harder though. Its definition has always been so annoyingly fuzzy and not scientific enough for my mind XD; Reading experiences is definitely useful for understanding the aro spectrum.

    I wonder if a lack of stories might contribute so some of this proliferation of labels. People don’t find their experience enough under one label, so they create a new one…

  • Carmilla DeWinter

    Yes. I did a couple weeks of blog binge-reading before claiming the identity.

  • Sciatrix

    This is actually the biggest reason I get cranky about new terminology words–because people circulating just the word and the definition on places like tumblr are generally not adding the description of lived experience that lets you get a sense for what identity under that particular umbrella is like. I wish people would pass those around with identities more often.

    • Coyote

      I know, right? Links, people! Linking is free!

      • Sciatrix

        I actually have thoughts on why, which boil down to “it is scary to make yourself vulnerable and let it go into the Internet, and it is unappealing to make your personal, private feelings public. Especially when they’re complicated and you might have people find out about it who you maybe would have preferred not to.” This is also why I think there are fewer comments from aces in relationships talking about relationships vs aces who are not currently in relationships. And if you’re circulating a new identity term/trying to come up in a new concept, well, there’s not going to be anyone else’s story to link…

        • Coyote

          Well, okay, that’s fair. But I think that’s foundational architecture that ought to be built before a term gets treated as finalized, if you know what I mean.

  • What’s your step two? | The Ace Theist

    […] It also aligns with what I’ve suggested about how — for some people, at least — discovering stories can be a crucial part of identity formation and adopting a new label.  Sometimes seeing the abstract definition or getting the technical answer, true as it may be, […]

  • Re: Asexual Advice’s Official Response — Filbert | The Ace Theist

    […] When I was questioning, I sought out a rough definition too — and then I stared at it, and stared at it, and remained unsure.  Turned out, what I needed included a definition but more than that, too.  I’ve written about this phenomenon here. […]

  • Quoigendering | The Ace Theist

    […] As I wrote in my post On Labels and What They Need: […]

  • The Glossary & the Gristmill | The Ace Theist

    […] stories is also a huge part of how arriving at an ace identity worked for me. I’ve tried to write about this before, but to say it again: for people like me, assembling a collage of narratives is a vital step […]

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