Assumptions can be a real problem. For example, I look a certain way and I wear a wedding band therefore I must be married to a man, right? I have children therefore I must have given birth to them. I’m a lesbian therefore I must dislike men. You get the picture. Making assumptions is a cognitive shortcut, it’s like a stereotype. We all use stereotypes whether we like to admit it or not. I use them all the time, it’s a heuristic device, a way the brain quickly sorts the world. Our upbringing, culture, language and personal/political contexts all influence how much or little we rely on stereotypes in our everyday lives.
When assumptions become really problematic is when we use them to oppress people. For instance: “oh you’re married, what does your husband do for a living”? To which I have to say, “I am married, yes, but not to a man”. A couple of things are happening here: 1) I have to out myself 2) I’m more stressed than I was before 3) now I’m going to have to probably explain to this person how I can be married but not to a man. Do you see how all of that happens in the space of about 10 seconds? Blink and you’ve missed it.
I have had to educate many, many people on the fact that I’m not married to a man and no, I wasn’t pregnant and no, I didn’t give birth to my children. I have had to politely decline to explain, to people who really don’t know me that well, how we had our children. It’s hard for me to explain the inappropriateness with which one asks another person how they had their children, but trust me, gays and lesbians get this ALL THE TIME.
So please, if you meet someone who “looks straight” or “looks like a woman” or “looks like a man” or has children, don’t make assumptions about a) their sexuality b) their gender c) how their family came to be. Just be cool and engage with them in a respectful, kind way. Follow their lead. Don’t make assumptions about their pronouns, use the ones they use. Use the name they ask you to use. Use the word partner instead of “husband” or “wife”.
Asking a whole bunch of intrusive questions or making assumptions that they then have to correct starts you off on a footing that isn’t equal. You have already exerted your heterosexist or cisgender privilege. Privilege is a something that you exert when you don’t even know that you’re doing it. So the next time someone asks me what my husband does for a living, I’ll respond politely but I’ll remember that you asked because it’s not my job to educate you on your heteronormativity. xo Janet