Those Questions You Really Shouldn’t Ask of LGBT People

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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!

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There are 8 Comments to "Those Questions You Really Shouldn’t Ask of LGBT People"

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Zack Ford. Zack Ford said: ZackFord Blogs – Those Questions You Really Shouldn't Ask of LGBT People – – #lgbt #p2 […]

  • Marc says:

    It’s a conundrum.  Personally, I welcome the questions.  I would rather be asked than have someone assume.  One of my best friends is a straight guy who is a bit clueless when it comes to cultures other than his own.  He asked me some really personal questions (“Does it hurt?  Who pays on a date?  Do you pitch or catch? Etc.) and they made me realize something.  While the “sides” aren’t “equal,” equality isn’t a win or lose game so my oppression is, in some ways, his oppression as well.  When one group is marginalized, everyone suffers because everyone loses out on the vibrancy of a truly equal, diverse human community.  This is controversial but, in some ways, I realize that I am a representative of the queer culture.  This “position” doesn’t require me to be anyone other than me, doesn’t require me to act any other way than the way I already act, but, nevertheless, when my voice and my identity is too often left out of mainstream culture, people like my friend don’t have many options to educate themselves.  So when people ask me questions, I do my best to help them understand my answer to their questions and also help them understand that there might be a better way to self-educate.  I always start with, “While I can’t speak for every gay male, I can tell you that…”  If it’s offensive, I can deal with that in a similarly “teachable” way.  Should we have to answer these questions?  No.  Should these questions be necessary?  Absolutely not.  Am I happy to answer them?  Happy isn’t the right word, but helping people educate themselves makes me hope that, somewhere down the road, things will be better for the next generation.

  • Buffy says:

    Calpernia Adams has a hilarious video where she’s compiled a list of “Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual” – complete with her answers to said questions.

    One of the questions I loathe….”How do gay people reproduce/procreate (and what would happen to the world if everyone were gay–we’d all die off!!!!!OMGOMG!!!)?”  I have to wonder if these people really have bought the propaganda that we’re sterile because we’re gay, or they’re just so unable to think beyond Tab A in Slot B that they can’t grasp alternative concepts.

  • ZackFord says:

    There’s some great discussion happening about this post over on reddit. If that’s not where you came from, check it out!

  • Lynn Young says:

    Great post Zach!  Have you ever seen “The Heterosexual Questionnaire?”  We use it in our safe zone training, it has provided some real AHA moments for new allies!

  • ZackFord says:

    Oh, of course! A ’72 classic!

  • CJ Smith says:

    While I beleive there is some minimal benefit to asking questions (it at least demonstrates that the person is willing to acquire some information from an actual  source, rather than simply relying on “what everyone knows,” I have to wonder why it is appropriate for ANY of these questions to arise in everyday conversion.

    Imagine how offended people would be (if)(when) asked some of the following paraphrases in everyday conversation:
    “Do all you black men really have larger penises than white men?
    “So just how small is your penis?”
    “Do you prefer oral, anal or vaginal sex?
    “What’s your favorite position.”

    Finally, I’d like to add what I think is the stupidest, most offensive comment I have ever heard:
    “My gaydar is really accurate; I can always tell, even with swishy women and butch guys.”

  • “How do you know when someone else is gay?” I sort of wish I had been asked this question once because my answer is “They tell me.” I have enough problems reading people without being able to spot flirtatious glances or what-not which might set off other peoples. “gaydar.”

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