January 31, 2012

Straight Until Proven Guilty

“Now imagine Y has a gorgeous girlfriend.”

‘A’ was setting up a joke over dinner, but before he reached the punchline. K, J, and I (me) had to stifle our giggles, somewhat judgmental giggles. The three of us know Y probably won’t be having a girlfriend anytime soon because he’s gay.

We were having a mini-awkward-fest on our side of the table while A continued the joke obliviously. I don’t mean to attack or accuse him, considering he had just met Y and didn’t know that he was gay. Rather, he is my jumping point to discuss what this implies about our interactions and what assumptions we make when we meet people. We tend to jump to the conclusion that people are straight, but such an assumption both indicates and reinforces the underlying prejudice associated with heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity, the idea that heterosexuality is the societal norm, can lead to a sense of mental segregation between straight people and LGBT individuals. Before I continue I will make one concession that probabilistically, any random person you meet has a 90% chance of being straight. That’s just the facts of the numbers. But consider that I am a part of the Asian population of Duke – there’s only a 22% chance that I’m actually Asian, yet anyone I meet will most likely be culturally aware enough to clarify that within looking Asian, I am actually Chinese. (It’s plenty funny when the odd person mistakes me for an Aztec Indian though. True story.)

What happens when we assume? We put people in awkward situations where they feel the need to explain their sexual identity. I would argue that this puts an unfair amount of social pressure on LGBT individuals to have to come out, therefore setting them apart (though I admit I can’t speak for how much autonomy we would like to inherently have as members of the LGBT community). Jessye’s post, “On Equality” does a good job of explaining the ways in which our society remains heteronormative and therefore, inherently having inequalities with respect to sexual and gender identities.

I believe that in certain respects, sensitivity towards LGBT can be treated the same way as racial sensitivity. When we meet someone, things go okay until we hit the awkward “What ARE you?” question. You mean, “What ethnicity are you?” or, “From what planet do you hail?” Going into a social interaction, most of us will keep in mind that our initial perceptions of a person’s skin colour, manner of talking, or clothes do not always tell us definitively where they are from and what ethnicity and nationality they belong to. We’ve reached a point where compared to some fifty years ago, the colour of your skin doesn’t matter that much. Stereotypes certainly exist, but on average we’re less predisposed to outright racism.

It’s much trickier since sexual orientation is not always as evident as something like skin colour. But part of being more racially sensitive is not just about having an understanding of what cultures are out there, but it is also keeping in mind that race isn’t something that should cause us to judge somebody. Similarly, we should not ignore the fact that not everyone is straight. There are two things we really need to do here then – first, we need to understand that for every person out there, sexual orientation is an additional and unique layer of identity and second, given a better understanding, we can then internalize sexual orientation as something that we don’t need to worry about in the first place (unless you fancy that person.)

Thanks to Chum Howe for providing this comic, entitled "Ethnicity."


  1. Nice post. Sexual identity and orientation are one of many many many more layers-of-human-identity that pile up to form persons A, B, C, and forever on.

    On a random note though....more than 10% of people are definitely not 100% straight (whatever I even mean by that!?!?). Just sayin.

  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    I have to admit to pulling that number out of my ass, since I'm used to some rule-of-thumb that I heard given changes in how we define sexuality and given the increased openness of our generation, I can only imagine the number is higher now. However, that's kind of beyond the scope of what I know (or can effectively google, apparently).