Assumption can be a dangerous thing.
You know the phrase about what happens when you assume? Well, assuming someone’s sexuality doesn’t just make you look ridiculous, it can also cause a whole host of issues for the person you’re making assumptions about.
For one, you could be erasing their identity. If someone identifies as female and they’re dating a man, most people assume they’re gay. If they’re a woman dating another woman, they’re a lesbian. Even when friends and family know they’ve had relationships with men and women, they’ll accuse them of switching teams or finally finding the ‘right one’. No. Stop. That’s not how sexuality works. Dating one type of person doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly decided that’s the only type of person you’re ever going to date.
Having people assume what your sexuality is or should be based on your existing partner is, frankly, annoying as hell. Being someone who’s mostly dated women, I’m used to people assuming I’m a lesbian – but I’m absolutely not.
I remember a few years ago I ran into one guy I’d been friends with throughout high school. I’d identified as a lesbian back then, and while we were catching up I mentioned that my partner at the time was non-gender-conforming. He frowned, trying to process that, and I took the time to explain what that meant. He’d been very open and accepting of queer culture when I’d known him, so I figured this was just something that wasn’t yet on his radar.
“So you’re pansexual now? What are you?” he bugged me.
I was annoyed that he kept insisting I give a label for a sexuality that he, frankly, would never have access to. (I didn’t say that, but boy I wish I had!)
Interrogating someone on their sexuality means you also risk outing someone against their will. Even if they’ve come out to you, this doesn’t mean they’ve come out to everyone. This can especially be true when it comes to family, which is why it’s shocking when someone actually tries to correct someone about the term they use for their partner in mixed company. If they need to call their partner their friend, let them do that. You may think you’re being a good ally, maybe by proving how okay you are with them as a couple, but what you’re actually doing is taking control away from them as to when and how they choose to come out, potentially putting them at risk.
Flashing back to my high-school days, I had a principal who hated me. It’s a long story, but the short of it was he was determined to trip me up somewhere because I’d exposed him as someone who exploits children under his power early on. So when I started dating a girl and we began holding hands in the hallways, snuggling at lunch and even going so far as to make it publicly known we were an item, he couldn’t stand for it. He called me to his office and essentially threatened to out both of us to our parents if we didn’t cut it out.
We were both impossibly fortunate that in 2000, in a small town in Texas, both of our parents knew and were accepting, otherwise we would’ve been part of an incredibly unfortunate statistic. Forty per cent of homeless youth are LGBT, and it’s a safe bet that number was higher in my particular demographic.
Assuming someone’s sexuality can make them homeless. It can cost them their family. It can cost them their job, and not even because of the kind of bigotry you might expect.
Ty Turner is a YouTube star who happens to be transgender. He left his job not because his coworkers were disgusted by the fact he is trans, but because they knew in the first place. All Ty wanted was to be a normal guy working a normal job, and when a coworker outed him as trans, he instead had to spend his days teaching Trans 101. He was bombarded with questions about what it’s like to be trans and what’s happening to his body, and was generally expected to represent every trans person all day every day. Being outed robbed him of his opportunity to be just another guy at the office.
Sadly, assuming someone’s sexuality can also get them killed. American history is full of names that have become infamous as martyrs for the LGBT cause: Harvey Milk, Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard. Very few of them were activists, most were killed because people assumed something about them and turned out to be wrong, as was the case with Brandon Teena.
Others have been killed because passersby on the street saw them and thought they must be LGBT. Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was just 11 years old when he hung himself because he was teased for being effeminate. His peers hurled homophobic slurs at him on a regular basis, accusing him of being gay, and it’s tragic enough that this assumption is something worth bullying someone over without adding the fact that this child felt it was better to die than to put up with it.
It can be hard to work around labels when we’re so used to using them. We like to fit people into neat little boxes based on the way we view the world or the way we’ve been taught it’s supposed to work, and even the most well-intentioned liberal ally is going to slip up.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you have a question about someone’s sexuality, ask. If it’s not something you’re comfortable asking about, you really shouldn’t be comfortable making assumptions about it either.
Comment: Have you ever innocently said something that offended someone in the LGBTI community?