I get a warm feeling when I see the word “asexual” in someone’s bio.
So when, after scrolling on Facebook for entirely too long the other day, I saw an article on graysexuality, I happily clicked the link. (Graysexuality is an asexual-spectrum orientation that describes people who sometimes experience sexual attraction, but usually don’t.)
The article was informativeâ€Š—â€Šbut the comments sucked. While some readers were excited and relieved to finally discover that terms like “graysexual” and “demisexual” had perfectly described their experiences, others were dismissive. Commenters posted things like, “Did the author just make up a word?” and “Oh look at all the special snowflakes.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen comments like this. Contemptuous comments trend on articles where writers talk about their experiences being brown, disabled, queer, pansexual, aromantic, genderqueer, trans, neurodivergent, and any marginalized identity that the general public isn’t aware of (or comfortable with).
Time and again, the question is raised: Why do people need all of these labels?
My answer to this is simple: Because these labels are our identities. They describe our cultures, communities, genders, sexual and romantic orientations, bodies, and/or our additional experiences with privilege and oppression. They are crucial for anyone whose experience isn’t positioned as the default in our society.
Before I found the label “asexual,” I was struggling to understand why I didn’t have a real interest in sex and didn’t feel sexual attraction. I was confused, afraid something was wrong with me. I worried I’d never have a successful romantic relationship.
Seeing the word “asexual” while browsing the web one day helped me put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Once I had a word to describe my experience, I had a starting point. I had something Google-able. I did research and found a community of people who were just like me. Other aces (the nickname for asexuals) gave advice on how to navigate a very sexual world as an asexual person. They also provided emotional support. They reminded me that I was not broken or alone. I gained more confidence and began to understand my (a)sexual agency.
That’s what labels doâ€Š—â€Šthey empower marginalized people. Through our identities, we build communities, we learn about ourselves, we tell our own stories, we celebrate ourselves in a society that often tells us we shouldn’t, and we come together to stand up to oppressive systems.
Our identity labels hold power.
It’s time to acknowledge this realityâ€Š—â€Šand to do so, we must start by debunking some myths.
Myth #1: “You’re a special snowflake.”
People use “special snowflake” to disregard the experiences of marginalized groups. They think we’re purposely trying to be different and that we invent these labels so we can feel special.
When you think people with different identities are special snowflakes, you suggest that the only “normal” people are the people who are just like you. There’s a word for that: bigotry.
People with this mindset need to think beyond their own experiences. If you are cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) and grew up surrounded by cishet people, then you might not be familiar with different sexual orientations and gender identities. But just because you only know cishet people doesn’t mean other people of various orientations and genders don’t exist. The world is a lot bigger than your circle of friends, believe it or not.
Think about it this way: There are around 470,000 words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. If you only know half of them, does that mean the other half aren’t real? Obviously not. And denying their existence doesn’t make them disappear. It just makes you look foolish as hell.
Those who’ve been routinely othered aren’t trying to be “special snowflakes.” We seek a community of people who are like us and we want to be respected in society, despite our differences.
Myth #2: “You’re all mentally ill.”
I’d need an entire book to explain how problematic and wrong this statement is. So I’ll just focus on the main reason: You can’t use your bigotry to make armchair diagnoses, and you can’t call something a mental illness simply because you don’t agree with it. Doing so not only attempts to invalidate people’s experiences, but also perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness. This stigma keeps neurodivergent people from seeking out therapy, medication, and other beneficial resources.
Shitting on neurodivergent people and belittling any other group that isn’t exactly like you is straight-up oppressive.
Myth #3: “You can’t go around making up new words.”
Actually, we can. We have been. And we’ll continue to do so.
Where do you think all those words in the dictionary came from? Someone made them up. Over time, people create new words; this is how language evolves. So you may want to loosen your grip on that 1999 edition of the dictionary.
Remember those Earth-like planets NASA recently discovered? Well, they’re currently in the process of naming themâ€Š—â€Šbecause that’s what often happens when you discover something that you didn’t realize existed. Notice I said “you didn’t realize existed,” not “new.” Many of these identities aren’t newâ€Š—â€Šit’s just that people are only now starting to learn about them and name them.
I understand that there are tons of identities; I understand that it can feel impossible to keep up with all the terminology. But guess what? That’s okay. That’s why we have Google.
I also understand that these identities can contradict the very things we’ve grown up learning all our lives (like the gender binary), and that they force us to rethink the very social constructs we believed to be 100% truths. For example, in discovering my asexuality, I had to unlearn many myths about human sexuality that I’d previously believed.
But there’s a simple way to deal with these challenges: Embrace diversity in the human experience beyond what you’ve already heard about.
On a daily basis, people are discriminated against for being something other than white, thin, neurotypical, cisgender, heteroromantic, heterosexual, and whatever else is perceived as “normal” in our society. If you fit into any of these categories, then you experience privilege. Some of your identities are more accepted, or at least more widely known. You don’t have to explain yourself everywhere you go. You don’t have to worry about facing discrimination throughout your day.
If you’re privilegedâ€Š—â€Šand everyone is in some form or anotherâ€Š—â€Šrecognize it. If you want to, be an ally for those who aren’t privileged in the ways you are. And if you don’t want to, at least stop pretending other people’s identities and experiences are affecting your lifestyle. All they’re actually doing is making you Google a little more often, and getting you to think about our society’s problematic social constructs.
Yes, there’s a huge learning curve when you’re reading about various identities online, which sometimes requires extra digging and parsing through academic language (hintâ€Š—â€Štry blogs and intersectional feminist sites. They tend to use everyday language). But just be willing to try.
And if you aren’t able to do that, at the very least, stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.
In short: Mind your business.