shades-of-grayro on tumblr asked for submissions of experiences/narratives of what it’s like for individual people to be grayromantic.
I decided to write up a long post that will also serve as my belated submission to the Carnival of Aros this past month of August 2019, which had a theme of “Relationships” and is being hosted by assignedgothatbirth on The Aro Anarchist. The call for submissions was here. (This post of mine has been cross-posted to my tumblr as well.)
I think it fits this carnival because I cover what it’s been like dating-while-aro throughout this post, cover my relationship to a term like queerplatonic, etc. I cover a lot throughout this post, a fair amount of which has to do with various relationships? Hopefully you all think it fits enough. I didn’t have time to write my own separate blog post for the carnival this month even though I wanted to. My writing inspiration just took me down this path.
I identify as gray-aro and gray-panromantic, alongside my sex-averse asexual identity, and prefer the term “gray-aro” over “grayro”, probably because I appreciate how it emphasizes how close to aromantic I am.
Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m only pan-alterous and pan-demi-sensual, rather than gray-panromantic. That would mean, in my case, that I’m capable of alterous attraction to people of any gender, and capable of developing a desire to touch and hug people of any gender—but in this case of “sensual attraction” it only develops after a strong emotional connection with the person. I don’t think I really have any attraction that’s actually romantic at all, ever. Unless my alterous attraction is partially romantic, which is certainly a way you can define alterous. I find it extremely complicated/confusing to define and it’s why I liked the “WTFromantic” labels for years and relate strongly to other similar labels like quoiromantic and platoniromantic. It just took me a long time to figure that out, to learn alterous terminology, etc. Even if I decide romantic attraction isn’t something I feel, my (a)romantic orientation is still gray because of reasons other than romantic attraction. The gray in gray-aro still needs to be there because of who I date and who I feel other types of attraction toward (types of attraction that are often a part of romantic attraction in other people’s experiences of those attractions).
And for more context, I’m a white 29-year-old cis woman in the USA, who grew up in a relatively conservative town. I assumed I was straight until I was well into age 23, then for a few more months thought I was heteroromantic asexual. I was 24 when I started to realize I wasn’t heteroromantic and started to consider that I might be pan or might indeed be aro.
During times when I can’t use too many words to describe my identity (for fear people will judge me for listing too many terms, for fear people won’t take the time to try to understand all of them, or just because certain website bios have very limited space available), I emphasize being aro-spec over being pan anything. Sometimes I phrase it “gray-aro” and other times I like the even more vague “aro-spec” (where I’m trying to express that I’m somewhere on the aromantic spectrum but you’ll have to ask me to find out where exactly).
I can’t really tell sometimes which of my experiences are related to being sex-averse asexual vs which are my gray-aromanticism, and plenty of things could also be a result of something else entirely and neither of the two.
But some of my experiences are:
When I was very young I wished my childhood best friend maybe would end up dating and one day marrying my brother (even though she didn’t really know my brother very well) because they were the same age as one another, and because then she could be my family that way. It was a fleeting dream that sounded really nice in my mind.
Friendships with “the opposite sex” were not common the way same-gender ones were in my public school and my town so when I was expected to have guys I had crushes on, I picked guys that in retrospect I really just craved friendly conversation and friendship with. I liked their personalities a lot from brief interactions and observing them in class. This even extended into my freshman year of college, where I developed a very brief “crush” on a gay guy before I knew he was gay and before I knew that my “crushes” were actually a bit more like squishes. I didn’t really hope for anything except for him to like me as a person and for us to… probably play more board games (I developed the squish after playing a board game with a group where he was one of the participants). I didn’t ever end up friends with him unfortunately.
Around what I think was my senior year of college, I struck up a conversation with a guy on an airplane flying back home to the same town as where I was returning to being an undergrad at college without anything like how it could be construed as “flirting” ever crossing my mind. He asked me out, and I accepted and we exchanged phone numbers. I don’t really remember why we never ended up going on the date. I bought two tickets to a concert though expecting to go with him. Instead I asked a friend(ly acquaintance) to go with me and it was a pretty pleasant night.
I went on my first ever date, and experienced my first ever kiss, at age 22 after graduating college. I met him through online dating on OkCupid. This was 2 years before they added asexuality as an orientation to choose on the site. I was really excited by how easy it was to spend a lot of time with the guy I dated and chat with him, and when he leaned down and kissed my cheek I think I might’ve felt butterflies.
On our second date though he was really late, I was out of shape and we had to walk way too far and I was in physical pain and exhausted. I didn’t feel as connected to my date as the first time around, and I just was trying desperately to enjoy the experience without actually succeeding in enjoying almost any of it. He took my hand for part of our time walking around the city, and it was uncomfortable and awkward and sweaty. I felt confused as to why people held hands. When we finally kissed with our mouths, him leaning in as we paused walking on the sidewalk at the end of the night, there was a lot of tongue and I felt nothing, felt nothing I hoped or expected to feel. I realized I wasn’t actually “attracted” to this guy, maybe he wasn’t my type? But I could not imagine who my type really was. I was mainly thinking in terms of aesthetic attraction.
I vaguely remembered the word “asexual” and it came to my mind after that making out on the sidewalk experience. I imagined it was what kissing “the wrong gender” might feel like but a part of me just knew it wouldn’t be any better for me even if the person I was kissing wasn’t a guy. I felt really upset at that moment by how suddenly not straight I deep down knew I was and I was so exhausted and I cried in public on the metro ride home. And proceeded to stay in denial about a lot of aspects of my orientation for the next year.
Nearly 7 years later I’ll say I’m pretty sure I don’t experience aesthetic attraction to men at all. I also don’t experience sexual attraction or even romantic attraction. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that it was impossible back then for me to figure out what kind of facial features or hair etc on a guy would be my “type”.
I did even go on one more date with this guy before he decided to end things, citing us “not having chemistry.” I cried and wished he could’ve given me more time to get used to dating. I found it hard to imagine being more compatible with someone else, not because he was all that great, but because I couldn’t clearly imagine myself actually compatible with people in the typical allo way I knew from cultural narratives. With sexual chemistry… Maybe romantic chemistry too? (Is “romantic chemistry” a thing? At the time I didn’t know to frame it that way in my mind at least.)
Honestly even today I have not read enough narratives from alloromantic aces to fully feel sure of how different I am from them or not. Specifically because I can’t relate to those alloromantic ace narratives where the ace person is sex-favorable or sex-neutral. And so the kind of alloromantic ace narrative I’d be seeking is very specific.
My gray-aro identity is so entangled with my sex-aversion, in the way I experience it. And that’s very confusing.
A year later at age 23 I dated a guy for 3 months. I also met him on OkCupid. (There was another guy with whom I went on two dates in between these two experiences who I met on Plenty of Fish. He is a less relevant story.)
This boyfriend of mine and I cuddled quite often per his preference, always cuddling while watching a lot of television together; the cuddling was mainly something I felt neutral to. Occasionally it seemed a bit stifling. I did not understand why people loved cuddling so much. It was hot and sweaty and my body got uncomfortable staying in one position too long.
I’d developed a strong crush/squish(/whatever it was) after we messaged on OkCupid and when we first met in person, but after we had tried kissing (making out) at the end of our third time seeing each other, my excited feelings faded fast. I believed my lack of any positive feelings in reaction to the kiss meant I was probably asexual and our relationship was probably doomed. But I persisted in dating him for 3 months. I was hoping with time I’d feel more positive things or develop sexual attraction.
When he eventually texted me that he thought he might be in love with me, I lied and texted the same thing back. (Which I’m sure was easier to do because there was no eye contact or in-person convincing to do.) I was ashamed, I think, to not feel it back, and that was the first moment where I wondered if I might be aromantic. I was vaguely aware of the identity at that point, that moment in 2013, but I had not yet internalized nuanced narratives of what being aromantic was like for people. I didn’t even realize how much I knew I really wasn’t “in love” until I sent the text and felt uneasy. But I also had already internalized a lot of amatonormativity and arophobia at that point. I didn’t want to be aro if there was any chance I wasn’t.
I’ll skip ahead at this point in my narrative to the fact that less than a year after that romantic relationship ended, I started attending an asexual meetup. My first time attending was over 5 years ago in July 2014. I got to know a lot of aroaces in the process (this particular asexual meetup group skewed aroace especially in terms of the organizers/leaders) as well as a few alloromantic aces, and began gaining more of a feel for what aces who are aro vs aces who are alloromantic tend to feel. As a person now sure of her sex-averse asexual identity, but unsure of her romantic orientation, this was a useful crowd to learn from. It’s not necessarily about my relationships with other people entirely, although having those friendships and other dynamics of being acquaintances with folks does help normalize ways of being to me, helps me dismantle some of the straight/allo “norms” super ingrained in my head. But the thing that helped me was the fact that I knew more cohesive narratives finally, not just bullet point lists of details of traits that could be aro, or alloro, but instead each individual ace person having a story about their own life and experience where I could put myself in their shoes, try to imagine what it was like to be them, and really learn that way.
All throughout this time I also was exploring narratives via blog entries on places like WordPress and Tumblr and learning what being on the aromantic spectrum would maybe mean. I started my own blog and began writing a lot about being asexual. This blogging naturally ended up leading to me writing posts that explored aromanticism and my own romantic orientation. It didn’t make sense for me to just talk about my asexuality and not address if I’m alloromantic or aromantic. Other ace bloggers were doing the same thing. Exploring what being aromantic & asexual meant to them, or exploring what it meant for them to not be aro while still ace, or other types of narratives. It was validating to see that many, possibly most, of us aces (both in the blogosphere and also offline), found it very difficult to figure out our romantic orientations and if we were aro or alloro. That this was a common ace experience, and that I wasn’t alone to have a huge QUESTION MARK regarding so much of this.
I decided to identify as gray-aro, eventually (by 2016 ish when I was 26-years-old) because I saw pieces of my own journey and experiences both in alloro narratives and in aro narratives. I felt like neither experience was “clearly incorrect”, and I wished it was simpler to just figure out which one was me and which one wasn’t. I didn’t adopt the gray-aro label at first, just settling on WTFromantic for a couple years, perhaps because at the time I felt grayness maybe had connotations of being “definitely not entirely aromantic with zero romantic attraction” and I wasn’t sure that I “definitely” wasn’t that kind of aro? Or maybe there were other reasons I was resistant, like the myth that grayromantic only really means was “experiences romantic attraction infrequently/rarely”. That definition wasn’t a reason for a person like me to want to adopt the term.
Through the ace meetup I met a friend who, I call “Robert” (not his actual name) when I’m blogging about him on here. I met Robert in July 2015, and in February 2016 we officially became queerplatonic partners. We both loved the idea of this term to describe parts of how intensely emotionally intimate we’d already become and also to add commitment to our relationship. Robert wasn’t sure if he was aro and went back and forth on describing himself that way throughout our relationship—if he wasn’t aro, he was probably romantic in a gay direction, though, which meant toward me, a cis-woman, he would essentially have the same lack of romantic inclination as an aro person. Probably. I also was trying to figure myself out, and I was beginning to realize just how aro I felt.
As I described in my post for the April Carnival of Aros,
My queerplatonic partner himself liked being able to tell people he had a girlfriend, liked passing as straight. I, on the other hand, hated being perceived as something I was not. And there was something just so viscerally not romantic about what the two of us were to each other.
I want to be seen as aro even when I’m in relationships. I want to be properly seen for what I really am. But it’s messy and complicated.
There is something that just feels wonderfully accurate about using the term queerplatonic to describe an adult relationship between two adults who spent a lot of quality time (and quality conversation) together, and where we had intended to build a life where we raised children together. We grew with time to love each other, basically with a deep familial or “alterous” kind of love (although I didn’t know “alterous” terminology” at the time). I felt my love for Robert in a way I feel sure was not romantic. I did feel like I’d kind of “fallen in love” with him beyond what I felt for 99% of friends in my life, perhaps because of our commitment or some other aspect of our emotional intimacy, but for me falling in love after a lot of time of bonding is not the same as “romantic attraction”, and didn’t invalidate my aromanticism. Romantic attraction is like… a crush. I could be aro and also have fallen in love, and no one would question it especially if I kept using the term “gray” to describe my specific “flavor” of being aro. Being gray-aro and having fallen in love for the first time in my life around age 26 are two compatible things, even if falling in love was not something aromantic people typically did. I didn’t have to fully parse out if any of my feelings were or weren’t romantic, I didn’t have to be sure. My labels and identities were satisfactory!
I figured out that I was demisensual around the time of falling in love with Robert. The strong desire to hug him was a foreign experience for me, and I realized I needed a ton of emotional intimacy before a “switch” of wanting that kind of touch flipped for me. My demi switch was clearly very specific to touch, not anything else like “sexual” feelings nor “romantic” ones. I could tell it had a narrow focus of just… physical platonic touch. I never explored that desire of mine much with Robert though. I hugged him briefly but didn’t talk about my new feelings before he ended up breaking up with me in May 2017. We were queerplatonic partners in a long-distance relationship with no touch possible for months and months and when we finally did see each other again, we broke up within a few days.
Around this same time, I also felt my demisensual switch flip for a friend I never dated at all but did feel myself kind of feeling like I’d fallen in love with. That friend I have since fallen back out of love with after I never mentioned my feelings. I just allowed my feelings to fade and our friendship got a degree less close. We are still great friends. But in 2016-ish I felt many of the same things that I felt for Robert for this other friend. Even without all the commitment I had to Robert, the feelings developed.
I knew before I met Robert that my dream would be to find a queerplatonic partner (or maybe more than one, I didn’t feel particularly monogamous about it), with the explicit goal of raising children with that partner. Robert had similar dreams of raising children, and we got along so well as friends, so it seemed at the time like we were too perfect a match to let that pass us by. Most people I met were not going to share the same dreams or be compatible with me in that way. I needed a person who would be okay with me being a kissing-averse, sex-averse, asexual and who wanted children. I usually found most aces did not want kids, and embracing a childfree life is kind of the default for aces. I figured my best chance of finding someone willing to partner with me though was if I found another ace—I couldn’t imagine an allosexual person wanting to partner with someone so entirely sex-averse. It just seemed like we’d be fundamentally incompatible.
After my queerplatonic relationship with Robert ended, I still felt for years I wanted something basically queerplatonic. I knew I would never be comfortable being called someone’s “girlfriend” or being seen in a normatively romantic way. I consider “queerplatonic” basically an umbrella term for a lot of different potential relationship structures, where at least one thing typically considered “romantic” is happening in a relationship that is not romantic. And where the partners both agree the term “queerplatonic” feels right to describe it. Robert and I agreed queerplatonic described us.
(More recently, in January 2019, the podcast that I co-host released an episode where I explain more of what I consider the definition of queerplatonic to have been established to be by aspec communities.)
Before Robert, I had been taking a long break from any attempt at dating, and I just kind of fell into my relationship with him. After Robert, it still took a while before I mustered up the motivation inside of me to go through all the effort of really attempting online dating to try to find a co-parenting queerplatonic partner. If I didn’t really want to co-parent with a partner, I felt fairly sure I wouldn’t have tried to date at all, because at least at that point in my life I had been feeling fairly fulfilled and content with an aroace singlehood and surrounding myself with a lot of social community and friendship. I still relied a lot on my father, however, and lived with him, and could imagine as I grew older wanting to find a committed queerplatonic partner just for the practicalities of how hard it is to be a single adult in our society, even regardless of my parenthood goals. There are other benefits I could definitely imagine enjoying from having a partner-level friend in my life too, but I couldn’t say for sure how badly I really wanted them vs. how much amatonormative society made me believe that was the best possible life. It all is so hard to imagine in the abstract.
That being said, a part of me was very ready to try this whole adoptive and/or foster parenting endeavor as a single parent, if I couldn’t find a compatible queerplatonic partner to do this alongside. I just felt so worried it would be too impossible to find a partner I felt compatible enough with, and who also wanted the parenting lifestyle I wanted.
When I was 28-years-old, I dated a girl I met through online dating, but only for a week. I felt an intense squish? Crush? (/whatever it was) when I thought we were amazingly compatible. By this point I was very willing to try being polyamorous with her and her husband. But the more I got to know her over hours and hours of conversation each and every single day of that week, the more I realized she wasn’t ready to be dating anyone, her husband wasn’t actually on board with polyamory, and the two of us actually had some other fundamental incompatibilities about how we would want to parent children, like when it came to beliefs on corporal punishment (spanking etc) and vaccination (she was an anti-vaxxer) etc. It was such an intense and memorable week of my life, though, and it made me feel reminded of how desperately I actually did want a partner after all. How strong my feelings could be when presented with real possibility of a future alongside a partner. I’m very much not intrinsically nonamorous. If I were to live a single life, it would be because other avenues didn’t work out for me.
That girl I dated was demisexual, btw, and she did not find me sexually attractive during that week we were exploring dating. I believe my strongest alterous type feelings tend to develop for people who do not find me sexually attractive, at least at first, because I feel safer and more confident that they find me attractive in ways that “make more sense” to me as a sex-averse asexual person. The only 3 times in my life my demisensual switch has flipped has been for aces who don’t find me sexually attractive at the time when the switch flips, for instance. I think being sex-averse asexual must affect my (a)romantic orientation in a way.
For my belated entry to the Carnival of Aces for August 2019 I’m writing about how I’m actually polyamorous. Be sure to check out that post of mine when it goes up. But I’ll also explain here that I believe I find polyamory so particularly easy to contemplate in part because of my aro identity. I think if I wasn’t aro, I might be more inclined toward monogamy but as it is now, I feel less of those things monogamous alloromantic people so often seem to feel.
I think it’s actually a very gray-aro experience of mine to feel so open to polyamory. If I was “more aro”, I feel like maybe I would be nonamorous, and overwhelmed by even monogamy, and polyamory would be “even worse”. But because of the way my gray-aromantic orientation plays out, I am very open to partnering, possibly with more than one person if it worked out that way, and I’m also very open to my partner having other partners. I feel ready/equipped/able to figure out what each polyamorous dynamic means as it comes along and figure out my place in it, and I navigate it all in a way very informed by being aro. (And remember, a huge part of why I like the label gray-aro is that it can capture that I do indeed date people.)
At age 29, in 2019, I entered a dating partnership with someone! They have asked to be called the pseudonym “Asher” on my blog, and Asher and I have been together for 4 months now.
Asher and I had some conversations and figured out that it’s not a romantic relationship we’re in, but it’s also not a queerplatonic relationship. Our feelings are not “platonic” but rather alterous, and some of Asher’s feelings for me are romantic as well, and I wrote a whole tumblr post when I figured out alterous was the word I needed and wanted. We agreed we both like categorizing our relationship as an alterous one.
This alterous relationship of mine is very different than any other dating endeavor I’ve tried before. It features way more cuddling, for one thing. I also enjoy the cuddling a lot more than I did with my boyfriend 6 years ago. It’s not stifling. It’s comfortably intimate and as soon as it’s not as comfortable, I can just move, or tell Asher that I want to move positions. Sometimes it feels really really nice, and other times it feels a little more neutral to me. I don’t crave the cuddling as much as Asher does, but I feel connected to Asher when we do it, and I enjoy that we spend so much time leaning on one another in this way. Relatedly, we sleep next to each other in the same bed pretty often and it’s actually something I enjoy doing, which I never imagined I’d do with a partner until I ended up in this relationship with Asher. These parts of our relationship don’t feel romantic to me when I do them, although they feel intimate and wonderful. It feels like an alterous intimacy to me, something that works very well with my gray-aro identity.
Asher’s and my relationship also features a lot of near-future commitment instead of the far-off future planning I was doing when I was in my QPR with Robert. I felt my demisensual switch flip within only 2 months of dating Asher because of how accelerated our bonding and developing intense emotional intimacy has been, compared to it taking over a year of knowing someone the other 2 times I can recall the switch flipping. I feel excited to move in and make new commitments with Asher—for instance we’ll probably even get a new cat together not long after moving in!—and we are really discussing a lot of plans for having a baby together via Asher being a gestational parent, and later on pursuing adoption for more kids.
Before we got to this point, we’ve been through a bit of a roller coaster of emotions. The fact that I’m aro has made things harder for Asher than I originally anticipated. Asher has never been with someone who is so aro, who doesn’t want to initiate romantic kisses and all sorts of other little things. I feel Asher’s blog currently shares their perspective on many of our mixed-orientation relationship struggles quite well and in a lot of depth. An in depth look at my point of view on it will have to be saved for a later post.
But I must admit it’s been hard, sometimes, to date someone who is demiromantic and feels more romantic desires than I currently feel like I do. Asher isn’t even allo and we still have all of these struggles, even with both of us on the ace spectrum, and both of us on the aro spectrum as well. Because we’re not on the same place for either spectrum, and don’t experience any of our aspec identities exactly the same—what we have is 2 people and 4 very distinct orientations lol. However it’s… empowering and exciting to feel like we’ve worked through pretty much all of the hardest things there. I feel really lucky to be dating a person who’s also somewhere on the aro-spec because my partner is really able to more completely understand where I’m coming from, I think. My partner has a faster and easier time believing my orientation is real and a part of me I can’t control, than a lot of alloromantic people I think would. Asher already gets what it’s like to experience attraction and desire differently than allo people, even if it’s not different from allo folk in the same way that I’m different. That starting place really goes a long way toward the place where I feel we’ve now landed at.
Being in this alterous relationship is in many, many ways everything I feared to dare to dream for. The relationship also is an array of experiences that I didn’t know I’d appreciate until I was in this relationship. I’m 29-years-old and I’ve been figuring out the nuances of my orientation since at least age 22, and it’s still an ongoing process, especially in terms of the gray-aro identity. My sex-averse asexual identity is a lot more clear-cut and “easy” for me at this point… there just isn’t that much nuance there. But my aromantic spectrum identity is constantly a matter of my own understanding evolving—understanding of myself, my desires, and my comfort levels with things. I’m learning about what I do or don’t want in intimate partnership, from if I would be okay with Asher proposing marriage to me in a traditionally romantic way (which yeah, I think that seems like it would actually be really nice), to if how I feel about holding hands is different after my demisensual switch has flipped (and for the record, I think it certainly is different—everything with Asher is different than it felt with the guys I tried dating at ages 22 and 23). And so many other things.
I tried to explain being gray-aro months ago, years ago, etc, but I always hit writer’s block, getting overwhelmed with just how much I feel compelled to explain in detail, and how much context I feel everything needs. I hope my rambling, extremely long tale of my journey through my twenties is worth reading for some of you now that I’ve finally done this. I simply do not know how to explain it more succinctly. But I do feel pretty accomplished for finally having written this post. 💚🖤💚
Please let me know if anything resonated with your experience! Or if you have questions and want further clarification about mine, I’d be happy to reply to that. Also just let me know if you found this all interesting/if you actually stuck it out and read all the way to the end of these over 5,000 words. You’re awesome.