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Video Post: Assumptions

Invisibility

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about invisibility lately, working through exactly what it is, what it means to me, and how it affects me. This post will be a bit of a consolidation of my thoughts on the matter.

Basically, something that is invisible is anything about you that can’t be known just from looking at you. Such things include sexual orientation or preference, gender identity, ethnicity (as opposed to race), and pretty much anything that doesn’t have to do entirely with physical characteristics. Sometimes these things are more or less invisible, for example, if you’re on a date some information about your preference for romantic partners is visible (though not all). But invisibility is a whole other beast. When you are invisible, not only is some major part of your identity is unknowable from just looking at you, but people specifically assume that your identity runs contrary to the way that you actually identify. For example, in every day life I appear male, so people assume that I identify as a man and am attracted to women. They take the simple not-knowing of this information and assume the most common versions.

This can be very awkward, even in casual conversations. For example, I recently had a conversation with a classmate of mine before class: she explained that she was doing so well in our Hindi class because her boyfriend was Indian and she got a lot of opportunity to practice, and then jokingly commented that I should get an Indian girlfriend. I got as far as “um, actually…” before class started, so presumably this person still doesn’t know that I generally am not attracted to women or that I currently have a boyfriend. Stuff like this comes up often, where people casually assume something that is dead wrong and yet very important to the way I live my life. It is irritating, because my choices in this situation are either stop the flow of conversation to correct someone or lose my ability to participate equally in the conversation. And if I do correct someone? Then it’s topic change time! In a similar situation, where the flow of conversation moved in the direction of dating and I came out, and we were talking about gay rights all of a sudden. (Apparently being in the presence of a queer motivates everyone to gush about how much they support that person, though that’s perhaps a topic for another time.) I really have no options, or rather my options are continued invisibility or derailment of the conversation, neither of which are particularly fun.

The source of this whole problem is assumption. Faced with something that cannot be known, people assume that they know the answer anyway. That assumption will fall in line with whatever is considered the “norm”: in most places we assume people’s gender identity runs along the lines of our determination of their sex via secondary sex characteristics, that their preferred romantic or sexual partner is whichever of the two choices they happen to not be, etc, and in queer spaces I’ve seen the opposite occur, where allies are assumed to be non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered. Assumptions are also what power “passing”, passing and invisibility are really two sides of the same coin. With passing other people’s assumptions run in the direction you want them to, whether you’re hiding or trying to be recognized as your true identity (depending on which community’s definition of the word “passing” you’re using), and with invisibility they run counter to what you want them to.

Invisibility is what fuels erasure. Any given person interacts with any number of gay, trans, or otherwise queer people very day and may not even know it. The assumptions people make naturally hide these qualities, keeping people who are ambivalent or hostile towards queer issues from knowing how those issues actually affect them or the people they know. Invisibility allows those who do not share our experiences to claim to speak for us or spread falsehoods, because few know that they have actually heard the voice of someone who does have real experiences.

I’m not sure how to solve the issue of assumption. I can’t control people’s minds, and the anti-stereotype “don’t assume I’m gay” mantra coming from the LG community seems to have increased the assumption that a given person is straight until they say otherwise, so asking people not to make assumptions may actually work against me. Recently, I’ve been trying to elicit some level of visibility through the use of stereotypes, trying to make people’s assumptions run in the direction of who I actually am. Nothing drastic, I haven’t made myself over into a sitcom stereotypical queer, but little adjustments in my appearance and mannerisms, things that I like for more than the little glimmers of visibility they give me. But these are not enough, it seems that in order to make myself completely visible I would have to become a caricature. And as for having people assume naturally that I do not identify as male or female, I don’t see that happening any time soon given that most people don’t even acknowledge the possibility. My only chance for visibility is to actually say something out loud.

Having people know something about who you are and how to react to you just by looking is a privilege.

Of course, invisibility runs the other way. Unlike racial minorities who usually are forced wear their unprivileged status openly, I gain a measure of protection from those who might wish to do me harm. I have some control over who has this sensitive knowledge of me. This, too, is a privilege, one that I shouldn’t take for granted. My invisibility is simultaneously a shield (though a weak one that can be shattered by my own actions or the actions of others should they wish to out me) and a confinement.