Contrary to popular belief, LGBT people do not have built in gaydars. Although sometimes we wish we did, as it would certainly make life a lot easier! One of the biggest struggles LGBT people go through every day is simply trying to find other people like us – unless you live in or near an LGBT friendly safe space, simply finding other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can be very difficult. Oftentimes, whether I’m at the supermarket, the park, or near anywhere that isn’t LGBT-specific, I have to look around and think to myself “Where are the lesbians?” Are they shy? Are they hiding? Am I the only one?
The truth is probably that the lesbians are out there, but I can’t see them. And in turn, they can’t see me – we’re all invisible to one another! But invisibility isn’t necessarily the right term for it – we can certainly see each other, hear each other, even greet each other courteously before heading out in separate directions, but to each of us, the other is preemptively thought of as “straight”, as not like us. This is one of the most pernicious aspects of heteronormativity (the centrality of heterosexuality in society) – everyone is simply assumed to be straight, and to be something else publicly, you must mark yourself accordingly. In her seminal work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler notes that even the idea of “coming out” of the closet is troubling – if it is a closet LGBT people come out of, what is the rest of the house like? Why are LGBT people always assumed to be hidden, closed off and unseen, forced to “enter” into the house of sexuality just to exist as who we are? The question is theoretical, but its implications are immense. LGBT people are forced to exist as ghosts, here and not here, unseen by all unless we mark ourselves, make ourselves known, and disturb the surface of the water with our own splashes and ripples.
Is there any way that this can be combated? Can LGBT people be made to feel included without being singled out? Can I find the lesbians without having to shine the spotlight on them? The first step towards improving things like this would be to simply stop assuming peoples’ sexuality from first acquaintanceship. Yes, perhaps 90% of the population is straight, but does this make the remaining 10% somehow less real or relevant? Of course not! Assumptions will always be made, but by being critically and reflexively aware of their underpinnings, we can work to undo and dismantle them.
Another effective tool in this effort would be to realize the importance of creating safe spaces for LGBT people everywhere – not just in resource centers or on college campuses, but in restaurants, supermarkets, banks and all public places. This means being aware and respectful of others boundaries and not making rude, abrasive or discriminatory comments towards LGBT people. Such language thrives when it is assumed nobody will be hurt and offended by it, as all forms of prejudice do. By making it clear that such language or behavior is not ok, LGBT people can begin to feel truly comfortable with expressing themselves and not fearing awkwardness or worse, retribution. Conversely, respecting the wishes of those who don’t wish to be open about their sexuality or gender identity is important too – very few people want to be introduced as someone’s gay/lesbian/bi/trans friend!
These are just a few tips towards dismantling the everyday institution of heteronormativity. Even if most of the world is heterosexual, it is important to recognize that not everybody is, and that everybody deserves the dignity of being visible, open, and proud of whom they are. By creating spaces and places where this is possible, it may soon become possible that I can find my fellow lesbians – and that they, of course, can find me!
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