So here’s the situation. I’m the founder of Genderfork.com, a community expression site about gender variance, and I’m out as “queer.” I also live in the gayest neighborhood in San Francisco and I host two events: Queer Open Mic and Deviants Online, both of which serve sexual minorities and other beautiful creative weirdos. I also sometimes speak about gender and sexuality. It’s kind of a thing in my life.
But then again, in a lot of contexts, I talk about Non-Queer Stuff: I build websites, manage online communities, and try to be a good cell in the living, breathing organism that is Silicon Valley. This whole Gender and Sexuality association seems to be prompting a lot of questions that I need to catch up on, though, so let’s dig in…
Q: OMG, I’m so sorry, I just referred to you as “female,” and you run that website, so that was probably a really stupid insensitive thing to say. Sorry. Sorry. What do you prefer?
A: I appreciate you trying to be sensitive, but female, woman, and she are fine for me, thanks. If you ever call me a lady or a chick, I’ll probably look at you like you’re smoking something, but that’ll be the end of it. I do identify as genderqueer, but as long as you don’t expect me to fit a stereotypically feminine mold, we can stick to what’s familiar. It’s cool.
Q: Okay, so is that probably true for everyone I meet who seems like you?
A: Nope. People can look similar from the outside but feel differently on the inside, so it’s bad form to assume these things.
Q: Got it. So when I don’t know how a person identifies, I should always ask?
A: The Easy Answer is “yes,” but I’m not going to give you that one right now, because I think you can handle the Real Answer. The Real Answer is that in a lot of situations, the most respectful thing you can do is not need to ask.
Outside of Queer World, we know a lot about people just because they fit the same story that we’re telling. If Jane gets pregnant, we can assume it was from her husband, and if it wasn’t there’s probably a scandal to gossip about. If we meet a man named John in a suit at a party, we can usually assume that John has a penis and that he likes girls with vaginas. There’s nothing wrong with these assumptions when everyone fits the story. They stop being okay, though, when some people don’t.
Inside Queer World, we try to stop assuming. We still do it (a lot — call it human nature), but we try to remember that the stories we’re making up about people are just stories, and we try very hard not to say them out loud until they’re confirmed. The most respectful way to get someone’s real story is to listen, not to ask. If you meet someone new, and you can’t tell what their gender, sexuality, or relationship story is is right away, ask yourself how much it really matters right that moment to know the truth. Find a way to sit with the idea that maybe, this identity is a personal matter that they don’t want to talk about right then. Find a way to be okay with that. We don’t get all of these answers from each other, either, and we’re okay with that.
Then again, if it’s genuinely relevant, or if the person in question is ready and willing to field questions, go ahead and ask. Just be prepared to accept whatever they tell you, even if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, and be very respectful about it all.
Q: Sorry. I shouldn’t be asking you these questions, I guess. Do you want me to stop?
A: Naw, you’re fine. I called this blog post “Frequently Asked Questions,” remember? Keep going. This is helpful to people.