My co-author Kelly Eisenbrand and I penned this op-ed before Election day in 2016, so pardon some of the language that is now considered past-tense and I also still feel that its contents are relevant (unfortunately). After seeing the results, now is the time more than ever to stand with the vulnerable queer community. Despite the President-Elect recently saying “gay marriage is settled law,” this band-aid on top of a gaping wound won’t excuse his VP pick, his demagogic base, his potential cabinet picks, and his SCOTUS picks. You don’t get to rack marginalized communities through the coals, then just walk away from your views like nothing happened. That is the definition of privilege Mr. President-Elect. You can walk away from your opinions, but we can’t walk away from the consequences of them. The damage is done, eyebrows are raised, and guards are up.
Besides attending protests and preserving (or aggressively expanding) the legal advances we have achieved in the past few years, a critical thing we need to do is clean up our own house by working on how we as individuals relate to the queer community on an intellectual level. How does our heteronormative culture subtly discriminate against queer people and how do we knowingly or unknowingly prescribe to it? By identifying this, we can begin to dismantle the culture of homophobia.
One way I would like to focus on how our culture does this is when people pose seemingly harmless questions to the queer community, but how these questions are framed can induce harm on the people they are asking.
As a queer womxn of color, I’m so used to hearing: “Are you sure that you are a lesbian? You don’t know unless you try being with a man. Why do you want to keep your sexuality in a box? You’re not really a lesbian, we’re all sexually fluid. Are you sure it’s not a phase? You’ll grow out of it.” These statements happen so often, that I have compiled an ongoing list because they keep coming. Yeah society, it’s embarrassing.
All of these statements sound harmless, but they’re not. They share a unifying theme; each one of them was trying to find wriggle room to negate my sexuality. These types of questions are guilty of committing a violent act of erasure.
Erasure is when the dominant group (heterosexuals) tries to negate, suppress, and effectively remove the marginalized group (the queer community) from acknowledgement. Reproducing oppression by posing questions that negate someone’s sexual identity is deeply problematic because all sexual identity choices are valid choices. No one gets to assign your identity but you. Forced conscription into the gender/sexuality binary is an act of violence towards the queer community because it’s rendering those of us who don’t conform to these binaries as invisible.
Sometimes, I let these stupid questions get the best of me because my identity as a queer womxn of color is something I’ve had to fight my entire life for. Certain responses reinforce this never ending struggle. “Oh why are you acting so defensive about my questions? Are you trying to cover up that you aren’t a lesbian?” My non-negotiable sexuality is not an experimental ground of trying to explore where I can be sexually fluid. Even if I wanted to question my own sexuality, that is for me to decide. You are the authority of your identity. No one has the power to interpret your experiences but you. You are the expert.
I remember one time where my inquisitor demanded that I open up about my painful experiences as evidence to justify why I’m truly lesbian. Forced disclosure is an act of violence. Forcing someone to open up about deeply personal experiences or convictions in order to assert their validity is invasive because it’s a violation of privacy. Your skepticism is never more important than someone’s privacy. This is a safety issue. Disclosing personal details can expose someone to actual violence, judgement, or emotional trauma. People are entitled to privacy and asserting your identity doesn’t magically void your right to privacy. Vulnerability should rightfully be earned through trust, not demanded as a piece of evidence.
*Sidenote- this also explains why prematurely outing folks within the queer community is an inherent act of violence.
None of what I’m writing is a call for censorship. I’m not opposed to people questioning me as I know people are curious. It’s about respectful discourse, which is tough as boundaries are individualized. The key to striking the balance is negotiation.
Some simple tips you can follow when trying to expand your learning of the queer (or any marginalized community):
- Check in on comfort levels before posing questions.
- Make questions versus accusations.
- If the person asks you to stop, then stop.
- Don’t demand self disclosure as evidence.
- If the one being questioned supplies you with an answer, be respectful with your response.
- Be careful with the information you are given for the sake of the discloser’s well-being and safety.
The people who pose these kinds of questions to queer people aren’t always malicious people, but are byproducts of a subtle and violent culture that seeks to disenfranchise the queer community and reinforce heteronormativity. It’s important to identify and intellectualize why certain invasive questions are harmful so we aren’t complicit in the oppression of queer people. This even applies to people within the queer community. We need to make sure we aren’t oppressing our own as I’ve had sexually fluid people impose fluidity upon me. Forcing a sexually fluid identity on a lesbian in order to open them up to sex with men and ultimately end up with a male partner is an insidious and violent way that queer womxn are invalidated (this happens quite often in film/television).
If there is any takeaway from this, you need to question your questions before you ask them and your curiosity is never more important than someone’s well-being.
Narissa Petchumrus manages a new event coming in September 2018. Conejo Valley’s first LGBTQ+ Pride festival, in Thousand Oaks, CA. conejovalleypride.com