Identity vs. Labels, Culture, & Change

This post is for the January 2018 Carnival of Aces, on the topic of “Identity.”

This is going to be completely off-the-cuff rambling, so bear with me if you will. There’s some stuff that I’m trying to get at that is very difficult to describe, so I’m doing it in a roundabout way. I’m also barely editing this post before I publish it, because I tried writing about this before and then scrapped the entire draft last minute because I didn’t like how it was going. Instead, I’m just going to do a “thinking out loud” style post.


I don’t really like writing about (my own) identity.

There. I said it.

Maybe that’s surprising to you, I don’t know. Maybe not. It seems like it might be surprising to some, considering that the entire reason I started this blog was to discuss a particular identity, asexuality—and more specifically, gray-asexuality, which I no longer identify with. There, I suppose, is part of the reason I don’t like talking about identity. When you’ve come to be known for having a particular identity, and then that changes? Well…

That’s not the only reason. I’m… hm. Frustrated, I guess, with the ace community’s culture of identifying yourself down to the smallest detail, and inventing new microlabels to describe each different experience, so that the list of labels grows longer and longer and longer… Most of these don’t gain widespread use and will eventually be forgotten, and you’ve got to learn to be fine with that. I’m not necessarily frustrated with the practice per se, but I just kind of disidentify with the mindset behind it myself, for reasons I’ll get into later.

The rate of terminology turnover makes keeping up with current ace community discussions pretty exhausting. It’s also extremely intimidating to newcomers who haven’t developed a sense that it is okay to not know all of the terminology. I’ve seen more than one person disengage from the ace community because they couldn’t keep up, and thought they had to in order to participate at all. There are some basic terms, yes, but going into it without an understanding that many new terms are being created all the time and a lot of them are pretty niche, and that the community is big enough that you can’t possibly know what’s going on in every corner of it… there’s a mental adjustment that has to be made, and if people don’t realize that, it’s easy for them to get confused and discouraged.

You don’t have to adopt a label that someone else made up just because their description fits with your experiences. You don’t have to think of yourself in those terms. I think sometimes, people forget or don’t realize that, or maybe just feel pressure to adopt labels.

Unfortunately, that last part is probably more often the case than anything else, and is probably a driving factor in creating the new labels in the first place. Because when people say things along the lines of, “You can’t be asexual if _____” (or when they imply it), people are more likely to think, “Well, okay, I’m not exactly asexual, I’m _____-sexual.” I say this from personal experience, although I’ll leave that discussion for later. I also don’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole giving examples about what kinds of pressures there are, especially when it comes to the dynamics of conflict on tumblr, which heavily shapes the ace community… But what I’m saying is, there’s so much pressure to not adopt certain labels/identities that it creates extra pressure to come up with new terms to use instead.

And then people deride the ace community for having too many terms. It’s a lose-lose situation.

There’s a difference between labels and identities, but I’m not sure if I can describe it well. I’ll give it a shot anyway.

A label is a way of naming something, creating a shorthand. It can be (often is) a category, but it can also be something else, like the name of a location. Think about a map: the little dots that represent cities, towns, or other locations are labeled with the names we’ve given them.

But if you read a map that’s in a different language than the one you speak, the labels won’t mean anything to you. You may now know what other people call the place you’re standing, but that’s not what you call it, unless you’re trying to communicate with them. Even if you speak the same language, you may still have different names for something.

Here’s a silly example, loosely based on a real-life place: let’s say there’s a mountain. This mountain has a Proper Name that appears on maps, but none of the locals use it, and some of them don’t even know what it is because they have no reason to pay attention to maps of that area. If someone comes along and says they’re going to Proper Name Mountain, a lot of locals will go “huh?” for a second until it registers that they’re talking about the mountain they’ve nicknamed Ace Mountain, because it has the distinctive feature of a giant spade shape carved into the side, visible for miles around. Anyone who calls it Proper Name Mountain is instantly marked as someone from out of town.

Obviously, there is no such mountain, because if there was, it’d be all over the ace internet. But this kind of thing does happen with physical locations, and I think something similar also happens with labels. We tend to adopt the words used within our own local communities, and the further we are from discussions using those words, the less likely we are to adopt them ourselves.

What happens when there are no labels for a particular thing? Well, then we can either make some up, or just describe it. If it’s something we need to refer to a lot, then it might be better to create a label. If it’s something we don’t often talk about though, then labeling it might not only be unnecessary but could create a lot of confusion and cognitive noise. For example, it really doesn’t make sense to create labels for each individual tree in your backyard… unless maybe you’ve got an orchard and you need to be able to refer to specific tree. But only those who work in the orchard are going to need to know which one is “A34.” For most people, saying “this tree” or “that tree over there” would be enough.

So labels aren’t going to be relevant to everyone. They’re a tool for communicating specific information, in specific contexts.

Identities… are more complex than that. They’re more about how you feel. It’s not just about a label or a social category that has been applied to you. It’s also about your personal perspective, the worldview that you accept. In order to even see “asexual” as a valid identity, you have to be exposed to and accept a certain kind of worldview. If you don’t think it’s “a real orientation,” then you’re more likely to frame your experiences a totally different way. Sometimes even after learning what “asexual” means and accepting it as a real and valid thing, people still don’t start identifying as asexual themselves until years later. Identities can take a lot of mental adjustment, and there can be a pretty substantial amount of reframing that you would need to do with your own experiences before you can identify as somewhere on the ace spectrum.

So identities involve a more significant adoption of culture than labels do. You can adopt a label temporarily to facilitate communication with someone else who uses that label without identifying with it. I think identities involve adopting that label and much of the perspective behind it into your own way of thinking, and applying those labels to yourself.

But it’s also more complex than that. An identity could be something that you’ve been raised with, based on a social group or category that you belong to (or are presumed to belong to). It may be something that you’ve never even given any conscious thought to. Does it still count as an identity if it’s something you’ve been trained to see yourself as “by default”? I think it can count but it might not. You could make a case either way. It might be an individual thing—it might count as an identity for one person but not for another. I’m not going to go around telling people how they identify, that’s for sure.

As I mentioned above, I don’t really like talking about my own identities. Maybe I should say I don’t like identifying publicly as anything more specific than asexual, greyromantic, and bi/pan-Not Otherwise Specified. I don’t feel that I get a whole lot of benefit out of dissecting my experiences, deciding on a label, and categorizing myself as something. I’m at somewhat of a remove from the corners of the ace internet where new labels are generated most heavily, and I’m perfectly fine with letting them slide past me. I find it more useful to describe an experience or read others’ experiences and see what resonates, without adopting their labels for myself.

Part of my issue with identifying as anything more specific than what I’ve described above is… I don’t feel that connected to myself. Because I have frequent low-grade dissociation, it’s more difficult to… how do I put this? …I suppose, to see how some of my experiences form a pattern? (As in, I’m not that good at noticing my own consistent emotional states over time, so it took my partner’s observations for me to realize that one of the antidepressants I tried several years ago had a side effect of irritability.) Or to see how my experiences are relevant to a sense of self? It doesn’t always feel like I’m myself, completely and fully, when I’m experiencing something. It feels detached, removed from my self. And I have a difficult time with feeling a sense of continuity, with my past self feeling almost like she’s a totally different person (in a way, that’s true, because trauma basically rewired my brain), even though of course I remember everything. But remembering is different from feeling.

I don’t know, like I said I have a hard time describing this. But, to go back to how I used to identify as gray-asexual and now I just identify as asexual, as an example… I remember the feelings that led me to identify as gray-ace, but I feel very removed from those now. I don’t really feel anywhere near gray anymore, because my interest in things that are sexual or nearly-sexual has totally tanked. I experienced both a change in my actual day-to-day feelings, and a change in mindset, as I became more comfortable with viewing those sexual-ish things (like kink) I once had more interest in doing as being compatible with asexuality without requiring me to label myself as gray.

Part of this shift in mindset had to do with shifting community norms, where a wider degree of variation in level of interest in things traditionally considered “sexual” became viewed as acceptable/more compatible with asexual identity. Part of it had to do with unlearning the things I had internalized from gaslighting and more general abuse that said “you can’t be truly asexual because…” Trauma definitely had a big part in impacting my identity both then and now. I don’t find that space of being constantly questioning and doubting fun or healthy for me, because it reminds me of traumatic experiences, so I try to avoid dissecting my feelings too much. I don’t really care whether I could count as, for example, caedromantic or not. I’m comfortable leaving things like that as a series of question marks.

Because I don’t need to draw a map of these experiences for anyone. I would rather just focus on being where I am rather than examining, analyzing, and labeling the terrain. If I studied cartography, that would be more important for me to do, but since I don’t? I’m just putting one foot in front of the other.

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10 thoughts on “Identity vs. Labels, Culture, & Change

  1. Pingback: Carnival of Aces Round-Up: Identity – Ace Film Reviews

  2. “Here’s a silly example, loosely based on a real-life place:”

    My guess is that the ‘real-life place’ you are referring to is rural Japan, because the situation you describe is almost exactly like a navigation problem my hiking-in-Japan guidebook warns me about (though it’s not a problem I encountered directly myself in Japan).

    That said, I’ve travelled so much in East Asia that your example does not seem the least bit silly. It’s common for the same place to have multiple names – for example, I’ve heard the city of Taipei referred to as ‘Taibei’ ‘Taipak’ ‘Toibei’ and ‘Taihoku’ (when the trains announce arrival in Taipei Main Station, they list all of those names except ‘Taihoku’). Since I using Mandarin to a surprising degree when I was in Japan, I learned both the Japanese and Mandarin names for many places in Japan (for example, Kyoto = Jīng​dū​, Sapporo = Zhá​huǎng​, etc.) Generally, if I used the Japanese place name when I was talking to a Mandarin speaker who did not know Japanese, they would have no idea what I was talking about, even if we were literally in the very place I was talking about. Even San Francisco is generally known in the Mandarin-speaking parts of Asia as Jiù​jīn​shān​, even though Mandarin speakers who actually live in San Francisco (including the city government when it publishes official documents in Chinese) tend to use the name Sān​fān​shì​ – and then there are the Cantonese names – and the vast majority of San Franciscans who do not speak Chinese are not familiar with any of the Chinese names.

    Getting back to the main topic, I really appreciate this post. I’m also currently in a place where I do not find the ace culture of using lots of microlabels personally useful, and experiencing myself as I am rather than trying to draw a precise map of it.

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  3. Nope! I was actually thinking of somewhere in the United States. But I can totally see that happening all over East Asia, so it’s not surprising at all to hear about it. I suppose I should have said it’s based on many real life examples. And, I just meant it was silly because I changed the nickname to “Ace Mountain,” lol.

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  4. I like this post. I’ve actually moved away from the ace community somewhat in the last few years, because my being ace isn’t a bigger deal, it isn’t as bigger part of my identity as it was when I first realised I was ace. It’s one of the reasons why I like identifying as queer – it’s broad and inclusive and it encompass all aspects of my identity, sexuality and gender and whatever else.

    There was something you hit on initially, though didn’t really elaborate on – the problem of identifying as one thing, and then having it change on you. This is something I’ve become very familiar with and it’s frustrating, but identity is sometimes like that, and the downside to labels is that they aren’t.

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    • Oh, now that you mention it I should’ve put queer on the list of things I’m pretty comfortable identifying as, too.

      I feel like I didn’t have as much space (or really, time, since this was so last minute) to get into the changing identity thing in more detail. Maybe I’ll write another post on it later. Identity fluctuation or instability is a pretty weird and frustrating thing, I guess that’s part of why I have tended to settle with “gray-(whatever)” until it sorts out in a stable-enough way. Even still, I don’t really think of my identities as unchangeable, because I’ve experienced that kind of change—it’s just not a change I’m going to predict/expect.

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  5. Pingback: Wer bin ich? – Die Frage nach der Identität. – Nixblix´ simple Sicht der Dinge

  6. Hmm. I might be in danger of sounding both old and slightly patronising, but I remember a time when I would’ve jumped right onto the bandwagon and it would have seemed like the most important thing in the world to know all my labels. (I did this with music instead and became enbroiled into fights about what constituted a true fan. Waay before someone invented tumblr.) By now it’s nice to have a shorthand for some things, but I frankly have no need to dissect my identity further than “ace and (currently) functionally aro”. So, I understand if someone needs to get excited about these things, but I’d discourage everyone who made other people think they had to, just in order to belong.
    I agree with your assessment of identities and how they might shift over time. Being born into an identity (being something by default) might also relate to certain ideas of normalcy and ingroup/outgroup biases? “But why do you have use a label for me being normal (cis/hetero/white …)?” Food for thought.

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    • “So, I understand if someone needs to get excited about these things, but I’d discourage everyone who made other people think they had to, just in order to belong.

      Hmm, well… I don’t think it’s so much the case that anyone can be said to have “made other people think they had to” use any particular label, most of the time. Rather, over the years I’ve seen a lot of people freak out immediately upon hearing the label at all. Like, I googled “caedromantic” and found this AVEN post as one of the top results, for example. So… it seems like being immersed in a culture of creating microlabels for any aspect of human experience that could possibly influence sexuality, by itself, even without any overt pressure, is enough to create this issue.

      Of course it’s complicated, because there are pockets of ace community where this label-creation happens much more often, and there’s a lot more policing of labels in some places than others… but even when there are explicit statements about how no one can say if a label applies to you, only you can decide that, it still may not be enough to counter the self-doubt/questioning that just seeing a new label that could apply to you can bring up. I don’t think anyone’s doing anything wrong by making up new terms or anything. It’s just that this sort of anxiety does seem to be an unfortunate side effect of it.

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      • Indeed. Given that I’m German, there seems actually to be less anxiety over labels hereabouts, especially if people aren’t on tumblr.

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