(I was gonna make this a Pro Tips post, but couldn’t think of five things to put in separate headings…)
As someone living in not-Uganda, I experience the privilege of being able to coexist with queer people on a daily basis, without fear of having their, or indeed my, head kicked in at a moment’s notice. And with this privilege, I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning straight people make rather rude and insensitive remarks about queer people and their sexuality, through a combination of not appreciating the importance of subtle differences in vocabulary, and unintentional ignorance. Obviously, I can’t fix all the accidental homophobia in the world with this blog post, because it’s a problem way broader than this blog will ever reach and there’s no way a 700-word post can cover the sexualities of seven billion people, but I’m going to outline some ways of conducting yourself so as to minimise the chances of you being a bit of an arse.
Sexuality is complicated. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not binary options, propped up by the elusive ‘bisexuality’ that only exists for indecisive losers and that one female friend you have that conveniently allows you to ask her for a three-way with you and your girlfriend! A more accurate means of categorising sexuality is the Kinsey Scale, that assigns numbers from nought to six to various sexual preferences, and caters for people who are predominantly attracted to one gender, but can still find a few people of the other gender attractive. But even this is incomplete; the scale reinforces the idea of gender being binary, and doesn’t even touch upon transgender sexuality. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore sexuality altogether, because it’s full of difficult language that’s a bitch to learn, but that we should engage with people complexly, and see them as people with a sexuality, rather than a person with that sexuality.
Sexuality is fluid. I only used to wear football shirts. Now, I wear football shirts alongside t-shirts with band names and internet references on them. This is an example of a thing that changes, much like sexuality. (I’m not going to answer the ‘is homosexuality a choice’ thing here, because it’s stupidly complicated and its existence reinforces a heteronormative culture in which alternative sexualities must be justified and scientifically codified, instead of celebrated for the diversity of identity that they are) Just because I like men now doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll like them next year; just because I have a girlfriend doesn’t mean I’m necessarily straight. Just as you can’t assume that gay people like x, you can’t assume that one’s sexual preferences are fixed. So don’t make a big deal of my sexuality if I dump a girlfriend for a boyfriend; just focus on the fact that I’m probably a whore.
Sexuality is individual. This is maybe the biggest one, and deals with the idea of a ‘homosexual identity’. Just as some people choose to engage with gender or ethnic identities (a woman may choose to wear makeup because of society’s association between it, and a feminine identity), others may not (a woman, equally comfortable in her gender, may not wear makeup because its expensive and is a faff to put on). Equally, some queer people will dance on the podiums of G-A-Y late waving a rainbow flag, and others will facepalm in the corner in a dignified manner, dreading the drunken, stumbling, sing-a-long that will inevitably take the place of the walk home. One isn’t ‘more gay’ than the other, and one isn’t more comfortable in their sexuality than the other; they are just choosing to publicise those sexual identities to different extents.
Obviously this isn’t a universal guide, but keeping in mind those three traits of sexuality – its complexity, fluidity and individuality – will probably help you avoid a lot of awkward conversations with people on a topic you’re hopelessly and self-consciously ignorant about. Their sexuality is their business; don’t assume you can gauge their interests from it, don’t impose a single sexual identity onto each individual you meet, and don’t make everything worse by putting people into neat, rainbow-ribboned boxes, because you, as a straight person, are in no position to do so.
PS I’d still consider myself upsetting ignorant on this whole topic, because I’m about as sexually active as a vasectomised giant panda; feel free to call me out on any ignorance, wrong approaches, or, ironically, accidental bouts of homophobia.