A Modifier

This is not a direct discussion of the “are aces queer” question. This is a personal reflection piece about what else has bloomed out of it like a fungus, modifying my relationship to all orientation labels other than ace.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by OldTor, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

CW: It’s anti-ace stuff, some of it directly quoted. Step carefully with the links.

Theoretically, you know, I figure things could have played out differently for me. Theoretically, I could have first identified as gay or bi or pan and only later came to identify as ace. Theoretically, I could have started at questioning gender and only subsequently considered my orientation. Theoretically, in another universe, I might even have identified as queer. Who knows. That’s not how it’s panned out for me in this life.

I started identifying as ace in a post-2011 world where “are aces queer?” was no longer solely an intracommunity conversation, and the resulting arguments have fundamentally shaped my relationship to all other labels. Straight, gay, bi, pan, queer: any way I might have related to these words has already been altered — modified — by the argument that an ace identity can’t stand alone.

The way this argument goes is that you can identify as ace, but it’s not your orientation. Your orientation has to be something else. As discussed in a previous post, the common line is that “sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to, not how.” The other common line is that “asexuality is a modifier,” of which I have compiled the following examples:

  • “I don’t see asexuality as a separate orientation I see it as an orientation modifier.” (Feb 2014)
  • “the definition of sexuality is literally the gender(s) you’re attracted to, so yes, ace is a modifier” (May 2016)
  • “asexual is a modifier! […] ‘asexual’ cannot be used as a whole orientation” (approx. July 2016)
  • “Asexual and aromantic are not orientations they’re modifiers.” (July 2016)
  • “asexuality is a modifier and not an orientation” (July 2016)
  • “reminder that asexuality isn’t a cohesive identity and can only accurately exist as a modifier to a pre-existing orientation or to describe a complete lack of attraction” (July 2016)
  • “yea it’s a modifier […] so if asexual can be used as a modifier. it doesn’t make sense that it is also it’s own sexuality.” (July 2016)
  • “Listen, sexuality orientations are defined by WHO you are attracted to, not whether or not you are sexually/romantically attracted to them. […] Asexual and aromantic, on their own, don’t define who someone is attracted to, they just modify it.” (March 2017)
  • “asexuality is a modifier” (approx. April 2017)
  • “Because asexuality does not affect your orientation. It is a modifier identity” (approx. April 2017)
  • “asexuality is, in fact, a modifier to your actual sexual orientation.” (May 2017)
  • “Asexuality doesn’t negate anyone’s actual sexual orientation, it modifies it (unless they’re aroace and that that is their orientation).” (June 2017)
  • “Asexual or aromantic modifies the other orientation label.” (approx. July 2017)
  • “Ace and other mogai identities are modifiers to orientations” (approx. May 2018)
  • “Asexuality is a modifier… Orientations have to do with the subject of attraction – not the amount.” (Sept 2018)
  • “Being ace is a modifier” (Dec 2018)

Across these posts, the case people are making is that an ace identity can only be appended and subordinated to your “actual” orientation. This has not been received well by those who don’t view the interplay of their identities that way. In my own case, the problem is different: these arguments are telling me I should be identifying with another orientation label that they consider more legitimate. Gay, straight, bi, or even aro — I’m supposed to be something other than and in addition to ace.

This impinges on me in three ways.

1. As I have discussed before, these arguments can be read in terms of compulsory romantic orientation. There have been times when those making the “modifier” argument might acknowledge that the answer to “who are you attracted to” can actually be “no one” — in which case they assigned the identity of “aro ace.” Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly), they are interpreting “ace” as rendering its accompanying label a romantic one. The possibility of aces opting out of romantic orientation is treated as tantamount to withholding their “actual” orientations.

2. In this context, though, I can’t rightly be assigned an orientation of “attracted to no one” because in fact I do experience attraction. What’s up in the air is how that attraction would be reclassified. Generally speaking, these people have been inclined to ridicule any attraction subtyping other than romantic or sexual, so presumably they would argue that my aesthetic & sensual attraction either isn’t really attraction or else shouldn’t be subtyped.

3. And that’s all before we get to the biggest snag: I’m gray-asexual. At best, I could hope that those taking the “modifier” stance would regard this identity no differently than they do “asexual.” I’m not optimistic, though. More likely, the identity of “gray-asexual” would be parsed as even more superfluous — as an admission that I’m not even a “real” ace, and therefore have no excuse to even “modify” my “real” orientation, let alone identify as gray-asexual and nothing else.

All together, I’ll tell you what it adds up to.

What it adds up to is the internalized voice in my head telling me I need to figure out what my “actual” orientation is. Whenever I’m not quick enough to tamp it down, it stalks my thoughts and pounces on anything it could use for evidence. It haunts me with doubts. It tells me to dig and dig and dig and dig and dig because surely I’ll eventually hit unearth something solid and if I don’t, if I stop, if I allow myself to rest and content myself with gray-asexuality alone, then I’m either a cis heterosexual in denial or a LGBT person in denial and for both possibilities I should be ashamed.

And if I am L, G, B, or T? The script has already been written for me. People who go from identifying with some kind of ace identity to a more canonized LGBT identity are supposed to look back with disgust and regret at time lost to “mogai hell.” It is, supposedly, a terrible and lamentable thing for people to go through multiple labels while questioning. Knowing this script inflects my thought process as I cycle through bouts of interrogating myself over whether I’m actually straight or gay or bi or what. In those moments when I land on interrogating some possible “sign” of being “actually” gay or bi, I remember compilations like these, and I remember how badly these people would want to throttle me, seeing me only as a failed version of themselves.

This helps bring back into focus that whatever I may “actually” be, I cannot entrust that part of myself to people like this. I must safeguard the tangle of my experiences from their efforts to seize control over the narrative. Either I follow their appointed script, or I let myself be seen as abdicating some responsibility to discover the “truth” — and I choose the latter. For me, the straight/gay/bi triad has been poisoned by its crusaders.

Here I’d like to take a page from Rubyfruitjumble, who once wrote:

if i wanted to, i could go through a list like that and choose a bunch of labels that might possibly describe me. i could say i’m like, a grey-homo-romantic, uh, demi-cupio-apothis-sexual? or, i could say that i’m a lesbian.


If I wanted to, I could lean harder into hyperanalyzing the exact specifics of every thought or feeling to cross my mind and stress even more over the question of whether I’m “actually” closest to straight/gay/bi… or, I could say that I’m gray-asexual. I can return to the word that actually brings me peace. I can decide that’s enough. Gray-asexuality is enough. I don’t have to concede to the pressure to identify with something else. I can give myself permission to rest.

Each time I lay off the flareup of straight/gay/bi interrogation and circle back to the identity that feels like home, I am reminded of how little that questioning actually has to do with my own comfort or desire and how much it is the consequence of external pressure. This has nigh irrevocably altered my relationship to all other orientation labels. My gray-asexuality has been, in a word, modified.

Hypothetically, things could have been different if my introduction to LGBT blogging had been different. Who knows — maybe my gender questioning could have taken a different path. Maybe the way I parse my own attraction and desires could have taken a different path. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed an aversion to the word “queer” because of how much I associate it with arguments like this. Who knows. Too late for that now. Anti-ace blogging was the modifier.

13 responses to “A Modifier

  • Linkspam: June 4th, 2021 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about the idea that asexuality is only a modifier. […]

  • aceadmiral

    Each time I lay off the flareup of straight/gay/bi interrogation and circle back to the identity that feels like home, I am reminded of how little that questioning actually has to do with my own comfort or desire and how much it is the consequence of external pressure.

    This is such a Real(TM) ace experience, and yet just that fact makes me so >| Even limiting consideration to “good faith” sort of pressures, it’s inescapable, just woven in to our background like the water to the proverbial fish. And because we take it as a given, it spills out over our margins.

    I had the good(?) fortune to have my formative experience with this specific strain of this claim (which existed in other forms before this) be in the context of “well-meaning tumblr mutuals trying their best to defend asexuality in a fandom I wasn’t in” and by the grace of it actually people people I had trust and rapport with, I was able to glean a little insight I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. My contemporaneous reflection on it plus some back-and-forth is here on tumblr (WP version), but the tl;dr is: they had received this basic asexuality education but had never been prompted to make the cognitive leap from “this is the model aces use to explain their sexualities” to “this is the model aces use to explain everyone’s sexuality, and I could potentially use it too.” That just wasn’t the way the education was coming across for a variety of reasons. And when people started having conversations about us, they were working off an incomplete understanding of an incomplete understanding, which is how a lot of them came to (to them) reasonable, logical conclusions that to any living, breathing ace person was absolute nonsense. For the friendly ones, it just took a quick tumblr post to set them straight, but the hostile ones… well, you know.

    One of the questions you and others have grappled with is: there were plenty of models floating around in the asexual community, so how did double-barreled come to eclipse every single other one so completely? How did our native ecosystem powered by overthinkers get coöpted and flattened by the “SAM”? I think a significant factor was outside disruption such as this, but the existing climate in the asexual community gave them the tools with which to do it.

    But even tracing it back this far is not the beginning of the story: This type of activism was done because of the necessity of hippopotamus-ing ourselves into making sure we represented the big tent. We had to represent the big tent because the wound of the intracommunity split on this (and forced integration of people from disparate philosophical fora into a single one when those on the exclusionary side of the split inevitably ran out of steam) was too recent for us not to make a point of saying it. And the intracommunity split is what necessitated all this naval gazing in the first place.

    This is such an important thing you’ve noted, because this theme is key to understanding the path of the ace community and ace activism since at least the mid-2000s, if not since the beginning of the internet age. Does the community of people who came to be on tumblr representing and arguing for this position exist without it? Does asexuality come to the attention of the “queer gatekeepers” without it? Does the foundation of the aromantic community exist without it?? How we grapple it is going to continue to be dispositive for a while yet, although I hope we can start coming up with effective solutions that takes away its power to keep hurting our people. In my opinion, likely something like this beautiful paragraph:

    If I wanted to, I could lean harder into hyperanalyzing the exact specifics of every thought or feeling to cross my mind and stress even more over the question of whether I’m “actually” closest to straight/gay/bi…. or, I could say that I’m gray-asexual. I can return to the word that actually brings me peace. I can decide that’s enough. Gray-asexuality is enough. I don’t have to concede to the pressure to identify with something else. I can give myself permission to rest.

  • Butchery | The Ace Theist

    […] Back in 2019, I was doing a bit of digging around and came across a page on Genderqueer History that surprised me. This essay connects the concept of “genderqueer” back to a preceding term, “gender outlaws,” and one of its sources even includes stone butches (among a litany of others) under the genderqueer umbrella. This presents a much looser, more expansive notion of genderqueer than I had been exposed to before. Essentially, I’d been thinking of genderqueer as sort of a synonym to or subset of “nonbinary” — locked-down and specific, requiring certain renouncements — rather than a loose umbrella concept of gender non-normativity. Recontextualizing it this way had the effect of making the word seem more open to me… but I’m held back from identifying with it because words like queer have already been poisoned for me as an ace. […]

  • Shoulder to Shoulder – A Hand-Painted China Plate at a Barbeque

    […] is, theoretically, some alternate universe where I might have, but that’s not how things shook out. And even if they had, I […]

  • 14 Signs of Anti-Grayness in Your Communities | The Ace Theist

    […] refuses to recognize gray-asexuality as a “stand alone” orientation or calls it a “modifier,” then they’re imposing a framework on us that we may not necessarily identify with. My […]

  • Ace Family Resemblances: Absences & Alienation Beyond Attraction | The Ace Theist

    […] I am a member of the lexical culture targeted by disparagement of our language, which in turn has modified my relationship to other sexuality […]

  • A Timeline of Anti-Ace Blogging | The Ace Theist

    […] the phrase appears at least a couple years earlier, calling asexuality a “modifier” seemed to have taken root and become popular in […]

  • A Case for a Convergence-Divergence Spectrum | The Ace Theist

    […] link compilation. These critiques were often accompanied by the framing of asexuality as “a modifier” of one’s “actual” orientation, where the slogan was that “orientation is who you’re attracted to, not […]

  • Comparing Additive & Subtractive Constructions of Attraction | The Ace Theist

    […] more context on that, see “The SAM” and its critics, A Timeline of Anti-Ace Blogging, A Modifier, and Don’t Make Me Choose. With that said, the scope of these objections definitely includes […]

  • Under the (Micro)scope | The Ace Theist

    […] These problems have already been described in many “microlabel” critiques, but generally I find the arguments uncompelling because of their tendency to fall back on the who-not-how/LGBT focus. For example, earlier I linked to a Twitter post in which someone describes having cycled through many different labels under a sense of pressure to find a precise, specific, eternal “fit.” At the same time, this person frowns on “quoiromantic” and positions “I realized I liked girls” as a solution. In these critiques I see a lack of consideration for those of us who find the straight/gay/bi triad to be the system that’s too specific and comes with too much pressur… […]

  • epochryphal

    Big relate again to your conclusion about gray-asexuality as peace/enough (despite persistent bad faith about what it means).

    I started out like “bi???” and then found my university LGBT center and “pan and genderqueer!” and then queer asexual all in like 2009, and coalesced them into a little in-person ace community (and was lucky enough to be in circles with David Jay and Sara Beth Brooks of the original Asexual Awareness Week and Siggy irl and go to the San Francisco Ace Unconferences and Sacramento meetups repeatedly) and got attached to greyness and the importance of modifying expectations around YES/NO, all before getting onto tumblr in 2011 after having already run some Ace 101 workshops and stuff. Which I think you know all of, but maybe not explicitly/anymore? Honestly, DJ was great at fielding questions in person and grounding in, like, paradigms and frameworks and tools, and that was foundational.

    Anyway, I was wondering about T4T and how that’s increasingly common these days and in my opinion directly messes with the gender-direction vs modifier binary (it *is* about gender, but about a *modifier* to gender…?). And then that made me think about the questionnaire my clinic just had me fill out again – it won’t let me see all the options/the blank version, but this is what my results page has:

    How would you best describe your experience of sexuality or sexual orientation?
    – Something else
    – Queer
    – Asexual
    Additional options:
    – Aromantic
    – BDSM/Kink
    – Non-monogamous
    – Polyamorous
    – T4T (Trans 4 Trans)

    I believe the sexuality/sexual orientation list was basically those and LGBP, and I think the other additional options included Skoliosexual and some others I can’t remember. The “canon” that you’ve talked about seems very much the dividing line between sections – especially since you can select multiple checkboxes in both. So even arguable gender-directions like skoliosexual and T4T are relegated to additional modifiers. Very much discursive, and not about individually articulating what is the foundation and what is modification.

    • Coyote

      huh. Wow. Weird to see “t4t” on a clinic form.

      I can’t say for sure what the rationale for any of that could be, but it does seem like they’re proceeding from a distinction between “main, conventional Orientation Labels” and “that miscellaneous extra stuff,” as opposed to like… a checkbox list of demographics or circumstances (“with women,” “with trans people,” “with multiple partners,” etc.) of sexuality, as might be relevant to a clinical context.

      • epochryphal

        Oh yeah, there’s like different behavior lists that are more like those “with”s – this I think is more about… rapport with provider? Tis a trans-centric clinic that does a lot of outreach around STIs and occasionally harm reduction in kink, so I think it’s a combo of signaling inclusivity/responding to desired ability to flag important parts of self as welcome and of potential relevancy to risk profile.

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