26 June 2013

The Day Someone Assumed I Was a Lesbian

One day I was having tea with a friend, as you do, and told him one of my super-funny stories (about telling a guy who was bothering me in a bar to get lost), at which point my friend stopped me with an incredulous look, exclaiming, ”wait, are you...?” He then proceeded to tell me in great detail how and where to find the only bar in Aarhus specifically catering to lesbians. Slightly confused, I nodded along and put in the occasional ”ok”, not really picking up why he was telling me this. Only later that day did it click that he was talking out of an assumption about my sexuality.

Yeah, you guessed it, the gentleman assumed he was sitting across from a real-life flesh and blood lesbian! Shock horror! And what an assumption to make! Just because a girl tells a guy to bugger off, she must be a lesbian, isn't that pretty essentialising? Maybe she just didn't like the guy, that really doesn't say anything! And so on and so forth.

But we forget one thing in our surprise, and maybe outrage. This guy had known me for some 4-5 months at that point, and apparently only at this point even contemplated the possibility that I might be a lesbian. Until then he had assumed, surely without even giving it a second thought, that I was heterosexual, or straight in lingo. This assumption that people are straight until otherwise informed is also known as heteronormativity.

Something being normative in a society, as I use it here, means that it is understood as how things ought to be, it appears as the natural order of things, and there is a more or less strong pressure to conform, as things that are seen as deviance are discouraged. It is very important to be 'normal'.

Heteronormativity is when everybody is assumed to be heterosexual, and expected to be so; some might even perceive it as the only possible option. You see phobia and hate crimes against homosexuals, trans* people, and basically anybody not fitting the norm. You're expected to be straight until something else is indicated, and even then people will try to make you straight (and “normal”) anyway. Or still think you are: the Finnish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest included a woman asking her partner to marry her, before ending the show by kissing one of the women singing in her choir – the big trick here is of course that you realise that the lyrics really are gender-neutral regarding the recipient, there was never any indication that she was singing to a man, you just assumed it, and then you realise the error of your ways, she was singing to a woman all along, and it's still all wonderful and happy. Yet you have some not so observant mind out on the internet who says, “Finland had a lesbian kiss at the end of a song to her boyfriend.” Basically concluding against evidence. If that's not normative, I don't know what is.

LGBTQ people are a minority, both numerically and in terms of acceptance of their difference. Coming out as straight to your mom and dad is basically seen as a contradictory statement, and as a joke, and in any case they'll just be thrilled when you present your other-sex version of Bob/ette, not even considering that it might have been Bobette instead of Bob or vice versa. On the other hand, coming out as being sexually attracted to your own sex/gender actually has a term, which already indicates that there is something to it - words are for concepts that make sense to us. I can't imagine coming out would be easy, depending of course on family, friends, and your social circles in general. It actually makes my friend telling me about the lesbian bar a really nice gesture, as he was trying to be open and accepting – while there probably was a tiny hint of mansplaining to the whole thing, as you'd think a lesbian would know where to find the place after so much time in town, it more likely was related to his being unsure how to deal with this, which is ok with me. Trial and error and stuff! You have to learn how to be cool with things you're not used to dealing with.

Occasionally you'll have straight people whining about being ”discriminated against” if people ask them to keep it down when in queer spaces, or complaining about having ”people's sexuality shoved in their face” because there's a gay pride in town. This from my point of view misses the very important point that you never expect any form of serious negative consequences for smooching with your other-sex partner in public, while our sexual minority friends often do face that. The power dynamics are different.

The same is the case for men complaining about sex discrimination because they have to pay more in swinger clubs than women, and at the same time insisting that groping is not a problem since nobody every groped them, personally, so really, ladies, stop overreacting. This is part of what I call masculinism – while this concept deserves an entire post, it is somewhat relevant here, since in a masculinist society (some call it patriarchal), the implicit assumption is that a default human being is a (white) heterosexual man. This is not synonymous with heteronormativity, but the two concepts are closely related; while heteronormativity can be present anywhere, even in feminist groups who claim tolerance, a masculinist society is highly unlikely not to be heteronormative, precisely due to the base assumption that you are a man who like women, or at most vice versa. Everyone else is fitted into this mold, one way or another.

(Cis) women cannot usually convincingly pretend to be men and thus by their very nature they are excluded and non-default in society. Pure and simple sexism, and obvious at that. Different from this, sexuality is not written across your face (unless you choose to tattoo it there, I guess*), and as such can be hidden more easily. This makes it easier for the straight cis dudes to stay in a bubble where you think that everyone is like you, if you insist on not paying attention, but it's not an excuse. The same thing goes for when people go all, “I should choose to be a lesbian because omg guys are stupid”. While that is in itself a pretty stupid thing to say – you can't just choose your sexuality - it also helps you stay inside your bubble: these people aren't really different from you, they just chose to do it for whatever reason, we could all just be happy heterosexuals if we wanted to!**

While I don't think there's any difference between people of different sexual orientations (or of anything, people be people) in terms of value of the individual or importance of who we are or the respect we require or how happy we want and should be allowed to be, there is a difference in terms of our possibilities from the outset, and that needs to be acknowledged. Pretending that you can't be of the same value unless you're similar helps no one.

Where does this bring us? It's superfluous to say “I'm heterosexual”, because you're assumed to be so. But imagine that weren't the case. One of the most overwhelming and illuminating moments in my life was the day I had to inform approx. 50 strangers of my sexuality, since they had made an incorrect assumption and asked me for confirmation or correction*** (interesting part: they had assumed something non hetero). I was freaking out. They were all very nice about it, though, and cracked some stupid jokes, and I learned to never again trying to hide in the crowd when I'm one of very very few women present in male space. It won't work. But I also learned something about how it feels to be the minority and how hard it can be. And then of course that it doesn't need to be a big deal: just say ok, and move on.

It's the making a big deal out of it that makes “coming out of the closet” even an issue. Correcting a misassumption is one thing, getting shit for being different is a whole other one.

But also: why do we even care? On a personal note, I have stopped caring in the slightest about the sexual preferences of people I don't wish to sleep with anyway (that doesn't mean that if I ask you, it's because I necessarily want to sleep with you, though! It's likely research!) A not-so-recent example of people caring about something not their business was when the rumour mill went “Daniel Radcliffe is gay!” His response: “some people think I’m gay when I meet them, which I think is awesome. It’s always good to keep them guessing” The particular article from which that quote is taken makes no further clarification of Radcliffe's sexual preferences, and guess what: I don't care! Why does anyone care? It's no one's business but his own and possibly of who might want to sleep with him! (Ok, I'll correct that to: of those who might have a realistic chance of the latter.)

But this also leads to another interesting point. What's the deal with exposing your sexuality in public? It seems to be the job of queer people, everyone else is off the hook. While on the one hand it's no one's business but your own, on the other hand, not ever mentioning it, whether you be straight or queer, perpetuates heteronormativity. I had a friend who took to go around asking people(=cute guys), on a Saturday night out, “gay or straight?”, and sending them in my direction or keeping them for himself as per answer. While in this particular case he was really just on the outlook for cute guys for himself, the question was interesting, and reflected a way that we might deal with the whole thing: just ask, if it's of any relevance for you. If it's not, then don't ask. If no one told you and you have a valid reason for needing to know, just ask. If you have no valid reason to want to know, however curious you might be, don't ask. Don't assume anything until you got an answer. If it's no big deal to ask and you can be cool with the answer, it will also be no big deal for people to answer. And if they don't want to tell you, then so be it. I guess they don't want to sleep with you. Or maybe they're Daniel Radcliffe. Just deal with it.

* I can't tell you how relieved I am that intense googling of this led to no useful results whatsoever. Found one of a presumably straight dude, though, for your convenience!
** I really made an effort to find some truly stupid links for this, but for some reason google insists on returning serious posts that contradict my statement. I take this a compliment to the intellectual content of my search history. Like when I googled the Swedish pop group Europe and got results referring to geopolitics on the actual continent. Bless you, google xD

*** As is usual for my anecdotes: it's a long story, it was not weird.

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