White Lies and Approximate Definitions

Sometimes explaining my identity to non-queer folks means giving definitions that aren't entirely accurate—little white lies that make coming out easier. And I sometimes wonder if these half-truths amount to a betrayal of the community.

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

You know how sometimes you tell those little white lies because the truth is just too complicated to explain? You don’t intent to mislead anyone, but telling the full story would take too long, so you just say something that’s not quite true and not quite false so you can get the point across. Sometimes coming out as queer can feel like that. Previously, I wrote about the many layers of my identity, where I explain the different sets of labels I use to describe my sexual and romantic orientation depending on who I’m talking to. I realized that the circumstances under which I’m coming out doesn’t just affect the labels I use, but also the definitions I use. Coming out to people sometimes requires providing definitions, and sometimes the definitions I give aren’t entirely accurate—they’re little white lies that make coming out easier.

The ace community typically defines “asexual” as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” While the language surrounding asexuality has changed a lot over the decades1, this has been the definition used by most aces since sometime in the early 2000s. One would think, then, that this would make coming out as asexual somewhat simple. Just give them the definition! The problem is that this concise definition requires some context to understand. The phrase “sexual attraction” was chosen by the ace community to mean something specific, but to someone outside the community, it’s not always immediately clear what exactly “sexual attraction” means or how it differs from having a libido, having sexual experience, or experiencing other forms of attraction. The language of “attraction” and the specific definition we give it is deeply entrenched in the discourse of aspec communities, and the phrase “sexual attraction” alone doesn’t convey any information about the conceptualization schemes needed to contextualize it.

When talking to someone who’s never heard of asexuality before, I tend to shy away from the “official” definition because I feel like it requires a lengthy explanation to properly contextualize. I tend to say something less precise, like, “I’m not really interested in sex.” or “I don’t like boys or girls.” These are inadequate definitions because of the way the former conflates sexual orientation with sex-favorability and the way the second is ambiguous about what the word “like” entails (and assumes a gender binary). How much educating I’m willing to do depends on the context, but there are many cases where I’m okay leaving someone with an incomplete understanding of asexuality if it satisfies their curiosity. These are the sorts of approximate definitions I tend to give people when I’m not in the mood to break out a projector and slide deck but still want to answer their question truthfully.

I tend to use these sorts of approximate definitions when talking about my romantic orientation as well. As I discussed in my previous post, I often avoid discussing my romantic orientation as something distinct from my sexual orientation when talking to someone who’s not queer or familiar with aspec communities. When I do feel the need to pull out the term “aromantic” and have to come up with a definition for it, I tend to avoid talking about “romantic attraction” for reasons similar to why I avoid defining asexuality in terms of sexual attraction. Additionally, providing this kind of definition of aromanticism often involves talking about the concept of differentiated attraction, which is a whole lesson onto itself. To avoid the need for a protracted lecture on the topic, I might just say something like, “I’m not really interested in dating.” This is a poor definition, as many aros do desire romantic or queerplatonic relationships2, but it might get the extended family to stop asking if you have a girlfriend at Thanksgiving.

Being non-binary, talking about my gender also often involves providing definitions, and these definitions tend to be approximate rather than comprehensive ones. I’ll typically define my gender as being “somewhere between a man and a woman.” I don’t particularly like this definition, as I think it implies that gender is a one-dimensional spectrum from male to female, and I prefer to think of my gender as falling on a two-dimensional spectrum with “maleness” on one axis and “femaleness” on the other. However, for someone who has only ever understood gender as a binary, I think the approximate definition is a good starting point.

Talking about being trans with someone who’s not familiar with the topic typically requires providing some background information, like explaining the difference between sex and gender. This is a thorny one, as “gender” is a somewhat nebulous concept which is understood differently by different people and different cultures. If I were feeling particularly self-indulgent, I might define “gender” as “a big pile of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fuckshit,” however this sort of definition isn’t particularly helpful for someone who’s trying to learn. Usually, I’ll explain that sex is determined by biological characteristic like hormones, chromosomes, and genitals, while gender is defined by psychological characteristics like how you dress, how you act, and how you feel internally. This definition is somewhat problematic in that it conflates gender identity with gender expression, which is particularly relevant to me as a non-binary person who doesn’t present perfectly androgynously. Trying to explain the concept of gender identity, however, usually involves saying things like, “I just feel non-binary,” which is somewhat ambiguous and difficult for a cis person to relate to. It’s often more helpful to explain gender in terms of things that are easier to understand, like presentation.

Sometimes, coming out requires telling little white lies about my identity to make the process easier. I’m sometimes afraid that giving these kinds of approximate definitions amounts to a betrayal of the community, like I’m undoing the hard work that has been done to spread awareness and debunk myths. I always feel that there’s pressure to be a good ambassador to the queer communities I represent and uphold the oath that I took on my copy of the Queer Agenda. Because of that, I always try to lead with a disclaimer that my experiences don’t necessarily represent those of other queer people. As much as I would like to educate every person I come across, I don’t always have the energy and patience for it, and they don’t always actually care that much about the specifics. Hopefully someday better public awareness of queer identities will mean that these stopgap definitions are no longer necessary.

  1. If you’re curious about this, I wrote a history of the language of asexuality in the decades before AVEN was founded, which you can read here↩︎

  2. Not all people in queerplatonic relationships use romance-coded language like “dating” to describe their relationship. I wrote more about this issue here↩︎