The Layer Cake of My Identity

I find I tend to use different language to describe my identity depending on who I'm talking to. There are "layers" of specificity and detail I will use depending on whether I'm talking to another aspec person, another queer person, or a non-queer person.

This post was written for the May 2021 Carnival of Aces, where the theme is “Words and Conceptualizations.”

My bio on this blog currently labels me as “an asexual, aromantic, autistic, non-binary person.” While this isn’t inaccurate, it’s more of a context-sensitive approximation of my identity than a comprehensive examination of it. The truth is that the language I use to describe the different components of my identity changes based on the context; like a layer cake, I have several “levels” of labels I use—particularly when it comes to my sexual and romantic orientations—to describe my identity based on who I’m talking to.

In most social situations, my sexual and romantic orientations don’t come up in the same way my gender identity does. There’s really no such thing as going stealth when you’re openly non-binary and use they/them pronouns, so being trans is more of a public-facing component of my identity. My sexual and romantic orientations, on the other hand, are a more private component of my identity. While I’m “out”1, I tend to avoid The Question when asked by non-queer people as answering it typically transforms simple water cooler small talk into a Socratic seminar, and I don’t always have the spoons to devote to that.

There are times, however, when I want to come out to someone, and I’ll typically tailor the language I use to the situation. In this post, I’ll explain the different levels of labels I use in different situations.

Sometimes I get asked The Question and answering it is unavoidable. I certainly won’t lie and call myself straight2, especially since it’s somewhat unclear what being heterosexual would even entail as a non-binary person. If I know the person asking about my sexuality isn’t part of the LGBTQ community, I’ll often describe my sexuality as “queer.” I do identify as queer as an umbrella term for my non-heteroness and non-cisness, and I appreciate how generic and non-specific the label is. The main point I want to get across by using this label is that I’m not straight, and what I am isn’t really important. I acknowledge that people will typically assume that “queer” is code for “homosexual”, and I’m fine with that. In the cases where I tend to use this word, I don’t really care too much what people think I am. If they want to make assumptions about my sexuality, that’s their problem.

The next level in the layer cake is dropping the a-bomb. Using The Word. “Asexual.” There are cases where the people I’m talking to aren’t queer and aren’t likely to have ever heard this word before, but sharing this aspect of my identity with them is important to me. These are cases where coming out will often involve a brief lesson on asexuality, what it is, and what it isn’t. Using this label is a bit more risky of a move, because it invites the kinds of invalidating questions that aces tend to hate. Questions like, “How do you know you just haven’t met the right person yet?” or “Have you had your hormone levels checked?” (This one is somewhat ironic when you’re also trans).

Something interesting to note here is that in this scenario, I’ll often describe myself as “asexual” but not “aromantic.” While my aroness is an important component of my identity—one I want the people closest to me to understand—in many cases, I just don’t find it worth the hassle to explain. In these cases, I use the term “asexual” as a sort of umbrella term for both my sexual and romantic orientations. The main rationale behind this decision is that most allo people conflate being asexual and being aromantic anyways, and explaining what it means to be aromantic means explaining how that differs from being asexual. If I choose to explaining aromanticism to them, I can’t avoid also explaining concepts like the split-attraction model, and by this point we’ve already been standing by the water cooler for an uncomfortably long time. I don’t find that non-queer people tend to assume I’m alloromantic when I explain that I’m asexual because making that distinction never occurred to them in the first place3.

Moving down a level, I typically use both the terms “asexual” and “aromantic” when I’m talking to other queer people. I find this is a comfortable level of specificity where the language is common enough to be understood by most queer people but also specific enough that I don’t feel like I’m misrepresenting my identity to them. Unless I’m confident that they’re somewhat knowledgeable on the topic, I’ll typically avoid the “aro/ace” shorthand when coming out. I might come out as “asexual” and “aromantic” and then switch to the more esoteric shorthand in the ensuing conversation, but I typically won’t lead with it. Even among other queer people, “aromantic” is a niche enough label that they’re not guaranteed to be familiar with it, and “aro” even more so.

The last level of terminology I’ll use is typically reserved for the people I’m closest with, particularly those who are aspec or who I know are familiar with the community. When it comes to my sexual orientation, this may involve explaining that I’m sex-positive and sex-averse4. This information really isn’t important for most people to know, so to most people I’m just “asexual.” When it comes to my romantic orientation, I may explain my attitudes towards romance and relationships in more detail. If I were to use a microlabel to describe my romantic orientation, quoiromantic would probably fit best; I don’t really find the platonic-romantic dichotomy to be a useful conceptual model for understanding attraction or relationships. I don’t tend to use this label to describe myself often, however, as the language of the arospec community is esoteric enough as it is. I’ve written before about my attitudes towards microlabels, and while I’m not opposed to them, I find adopting the label “aromantic” makes explaining my identity much easier. While I may not be aromantic in the strictest sense of the word, I do identify with it as an umbrella term to signify that I’m arospec. Explaining my romantic orientation in more detail may also involve explaining that I’m something of a relationship anarchist.

There are many words I use to describe my identity, particularly when it comes to my sexual and romantic orientations. Which ones I use usually comes down to finding the balance between minimizing the amount of explanation required and minimizing the degree to which I’m oversimplifying or misrepresenting my identity. I tend to make a distinction between in-group language and out-group language when talking about my identity, where I tailor the terminology I use to what I expect the person I’m talking to will easily understand. There’s also an element of controlling how much personal information I want to share with a given person, as my sexual and romantic orientation aren’t a public-facing component of my identity to the same extent my gender is. While queer people tend to get flak from non-queer people for the amount of esoteric identity language we use, the different layers of terminology I use to describe my identity helps make the never-ending process of coming out a little bit easier, and at the end of the day, the whole purpose of language is to help communicate experiences.

  1. I put “out” in scare quotes here because the truth is that there are many levels of being out as a queer person, and coming out isn’t a one-time event. In this case, I’m using the term to mean that I’m out to the people who are important to me. ↩︎

  2. I’m privileged to live in an environment where I usually don’t have to lie about my gender or sexuality for safety reasons. Not everyone is this fortunate, and they are valid in labeling themselves however they need to. ↩︎

  3. It’s worth noting that not all aces make this distinction either; for many aces, the concept of a romantic orientation just doesn’t apply. Coyote wrote a great discussion on the problems inherent in enforcing a compulsory romantic orientation on aces. ↩︎

  4. Some people conflate the term “sex-positive” with “sex-favorable,” when they actually refer to different axes on the ace spectrum. In this case, I’m using the term “sex-positive” to refer to my attitude toward sexuality in a broader social context, while I use the term “sex-averse” to describe my attitude toward participating in sex. ↩︎