I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)
So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.
My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.
I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.
No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.
I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.
I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.
And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.
It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.