Humans are curious creatures and privilege is a tricky thing. As we study and learn the experience of different people, we realize that the experience of oppression can manifest itself in the tiniest of ways, without our even realizing.
A well known example of such microaggressions is the experience of black people in regards to their kinky hair. “Afro-textured hair” is unique. Huge industries exist to help black women make their hair “good,” which means straightened and relaxed (like white hair). It’s such a culture-wide phenomenon that Chris Rock recently made a documentary called “Good Hair” about the $59 million dollar industry, and Tyra Banks made headlines last September when she revealed her real hair (weave- and extension-free) on the season premiere of her talk show. Recently, Deborah Pogue offered a reflection on her recent confrontation with her own hair, and Allison Keyes offered a commentary on NPR about white folks who assume they have the right to touch her hair, even without permission. Keyes points out that even being asked for permission doesn’t make her feel less objectified or scrutinized by the experience.
This post isn’t just about black hair, but I reference it as an example of questions that aren’t really appropriate to ask. These are questions that privilege the asker’s curiosity over the askee’s individuality. They put people in the position of being representatives for their communities and suggest that a part of who they are demands explanation. While perhaps motivated by simple curiosity, the questions can often inadvertently add to the oppression people might experience due to certain dimensions of their identity.
I used the example of the “Can I touch your hair?” question to invite my colleagues in the Consortium of Higher Ed LGBT Resource Professionals to offer any such questions they thought pertained to the LGBT community. I also encouraged them to share any other microaggressive statements that they’ve heard. Here is a collection of their answers:
One thing I get a lot from heterosexual women are references to Will and Grace as in, “Oh, we’re just like Will and Grace.” to which I reply, “No, were are not actors pretending to be someone.”
How do you have sex?
Are you a top or a bottom?
When men and women refer to gay men as “boys.”
How do you know when someone else is gay?
Who pays for the first date?
Who’s the masculine one?
I can’t imagine having sex with a man/woman.
You don’t look gay.
And here are a few that were trans-specific:
Have you had the surgery?/Do you plan to have any surgeries?
Do you have a vagina/penis?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of such questions, but I think they are important to consider.
I think they are all valid points. No one should be expected to respond to these kinds of questions. Many of them aren’t even answerable, because they feed into many misunderstandings. Queer folks are not beholden to explain themselves to those who are heterosexual and cisgender.
At the same time, our biggest problem is the misunderstanding—the fact that so many lack the knowledge to understand the queer community. While the questions themselves might be insulting, they also can be opportunities to educate. They can be conversation starters to help people understand why the question is inappropriate and/or why the answer is private.
This is one of the challenges I think many people face when it comes Harvey Milk’s great invitation to come out. Being out requires the fortitude to handle these kinds of questions when they are asked. A person has to be able to take the question in stride and articulate a suitable response to help develop a more sensitive understanding. And arguably, by making the choice to be out, a person opens themselves up to this kind of interrogation.
At the same time we need the courage to resist such invasive inquiries, we also need the courage to be open and to educate. The fact that this dilemma occurs further demonstrates the oppression that the LGBT community faces because queer identities are largely invisible.
I would really love this conversation to continue, so please share your comments! Are there questions you don’t like being asked? How do you respond when faced with a barrage of invasive questions? What are some of the challenges of being out and open about your identity? What are some tricks to staying resilient? I look forward to further discussion!