Friday, May 17, 2013

A Handful of Moments: heteronormativity and micro-aggression in my life

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17th) Check out the website of the origination running it:

To raise awareness of that and the ways homophobia and transphobia affect not only LGBTQ people but also everyone in our society, I am taking part in Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia with many amazing writers, editors and published.  There will be giveaways as well. Check out the master post of the hop here and see what everyone else is doing.

I put off writing this for days and days, mostly because when ever I thought about sitting down to write about homophobia and transphobia it just made me sad and angry and tired … mostly tired. I thought about writing about how my personal experiences connect to larger issues like religion, the fear of violence, bullying, gender identity and expression.

Instead I want to focus in on moments where I have been made to feel the pressures of heterornativity and micro-aggression against LGBTQ people particularly heavily.

Heteronormativity is the way of thinking which says all people are biologically and socially divided into two and only two groups: men and women. From this comes the idea that there are certain characteristics innate to all men and women, and that from these naturally derive social gender roles. It also defines heterosexuality as universally the only natural and normal way of being sexual. Heteronormativity creates heterosexuality as the only moral form of sexuality, the most nurturing of individuals and communities optimal if not necessary for raising a family. In this way everyone is raised to believe that they are innately heterosexual and cisgender and it must recreate their identities if and when they come out as LGBTQ. Further everyone who is not heterosexual is seen as either part of a small group affected by a genetic anomaly, or a dangerous perversion of nature. Unfortunately this construction of only two genders and heterosexually being the only natural form of sexuality is what Western concepts of gender and sexuality have been based on for about a hundred and fifty years.

Heteronormativity is enforced in our society in lots of different ways one of which is micro-aggression. Micro-aggression, in this context, refers to actions, looks, or comments which are not thought of as homophobic or transphobic but instead as completely societially acceptable but are still based on the assumption that there is something wrong, unnatural, or unacceptable about people who are not cisgender heterosexuals. Most LBTQ people will experience this sort of thoughtless micro-aggression every day, all across the United States. Most people who perpetuate micro-aggression do not think of themselves as homophobic or transphobic and might even consider themselves allies but still rely on heteronormativity as their overarching way of looking at gender and sexuality.

I myself experience this kind of micro-aggression all the time. It is some of these kinds of moments, some of the ones that cut the deepest which I am going to write about. These moments might seem insignificant but the combined total of having these small scene play out day after day is to make me feel less respected and less valued as a human being, Othered and isolated.

I'm in the grocery store doing my biweekly shopping. It's Whole Foods and I'm looking at bagels in the bakery trying to figure out if they can fit into my graduate student budget when a woman and her daughter nearly crash their cart into my cart.

"I'm sorry." I say smiling even though it was she who nearly ran me over, "I'm in your way." I move my cart.

She looks up at me a smile on her face, then really gets a good look at me, does a once over. Her features settle into a scowl instead. She pulls her daughter, about 13 maybe, almost imperceptible closer to her and turns away without apologizing. Her daughters cranes her neck to stare at me without trying to hide it, mouth half open, as they walk away.

I'm wearing grey slacks, a light violet dress shirt, with a black angora sweater vest, a grey vintage necktie, black dress shoes and blazer. My short hair is parted down the center and then carefully swept to the side, I wear heavy, dark-rimmed glasses. 

I decide not to buy the bagels and head to the produce section on a quest to find if there is any blood oranges. Sadly there is not.


I'm walking to my Business Law Two class. It's late enough in the semester that I'm comfortable and relaxed in class, but not close enough to finals for me to be panicking yet. The class like most of my paralegal law classes are divided between the students just out of high school and the older returning students of which I am one. Of the older students the classes are mostly divided again between the single moms in their twenties and the rest of us. I have been sitting with a few women in their mid-to-late forties who after being stay at home mom's for nineteen years are trying to reenter the workforce. They all like me; I'm quiet, serious, a good student, I work hard. We snicker together over old Harlequin romance covers on my computer before evening classes and talk about the church groups at our respective churches.

I'm in the hall not quite to the door when I hear them talking.

Someone says the word 'gay'

"I do like happy people." it's one of the women I sit with purposefully miss-understanding the conversation, the other women, the women in my group, giggle. The young man in the row ahead of them makes a comment about anal sex, something along the lines of why two men just physically can't have sex together, but cruder. All the late-teens-twenty-somethings in the room laugh.

Still in the hall I can see through the open class room door without being seen. One of the women I sit with looks uncomfortable, the one sitting right behind the the young man who made the comment reaches forward and smacks him lightly on the shoulder.

"You're such a bad boy. You are really horrible." She says but she's smiling too, obviously thinks it's funny.

A wave of emotion hits me. Not anxiety or fear but sadness and the sliding sinking sense that I am not welcome here, not a part of this, instead very much Other.

I turn and walk as quickly as I can without running to the women's bathroom. Once in side I stand gripping the edges of one of the sinks not making eye contact with myself in the mirror. I should have gone in there, I think, corrected and maybe educated them. Right then though, in that moment I don't want to be the strong one, I don't want to have to be. So I stand there until I hear the professor leave his office, which is across the hall from the bathroom. I count slowly from five and then straight up, plaster a smile on my face and head to class.

I am having a fight with one of my co-workers. Together we and several others run non-profit, part of which involved organizing and running events of middle-school and high-school aged kids.

We are arguing over something to do with facilitators for one of these upcoming events.

He says something about the need for there to always be one female and one male counselor which I agree with in theory I just feel we should be pragmatic rather then dogmatic about this (it's part of a larger issue which become more divisive for us all as the year goes on).

'male identified people' I say referring to the councilors in question, aware that at least one of those counselors for an upcoming event is trans*/genderqueer.

"Let me be clear." He says visibly angry, moving into my personal space "It doesn't matter how you identify yourself, the kids see you as a woman, you can never fulfill that male role and that's what matters."

I'm caught off guard. I wasn't even thinking of myself and my new, still vulnerable, struggle with my own gender identity. I look up to see everyone around the table is nodding in agreement with him. Here where we pride ourselves on our LGBT inclusiveness and sensitivity.

Someone says something about it needing to a 'real' man.

"I wasn't thinking about myself" I say. Angry now, for myself, yes, more angry on the part of the gender variant councilors we might have in the future and the gender variant children for whom we are supposed to be role models as well. I am suddenly very aware of being the only one in the room not presenting strongly as the gender they were assigned at birth. I do not identify at trans* at this point in my life but I am transitioning, my life moving from one place to another. For the first time in months I suddenly wish I was dressed more normatively feminine, then maybe they'd listen, and actually hear what I had to say.

The conversation moves on to other things and I know I've lost the argument. I sit quietly as everyone around me chats as if nothing of significants has happened.

Pain and anger curl tight in my chest, where they stay lodged there for weeks to come.

"You are such a nice, hard working young woman." She says smiling like an older version of my own mother.

I look up from the book I've been reading and blush a little. "Thank you."

"I really don't understand why you don't have a nice boyfriend." She says "you are exactly the kind of young woman I hope my son's date."

I stare at her a for a moment at a loss for what to say. I'm dressed like a school boy as always: slacks, button up shirt, sweater vest, cardigan, hair so short it's pretty much buzzed. I'm wearing cufflinks for crying out loud. I wonder how I could possibly look like the kind of young woman who would have a boyfriend. Then I kick myself mentally, reminding myself that plenty of tomboy women are straight, and lots of genderqueer people and trans* guys have boyfriends.

What is actually at stake here though is not the fact that she things I might be a gender variant person attracted to male idenfied people. She is being nice, and part of that is to assume that I am cisgender and heterosexual. She likes me, she thinks highly of me so she wants to give me the benefit of the doubt. I might look so butch you could tell it from space, but she's not going to jump to any conclusions until I actually come out. In our society you assume someone is straight until proven otherwise, that's the reason we come out at all.

I should say something, either come out to her or make up some vague sounding dismissive comment, about me being bad at relationships (not a lie that). Instead I sit there and think what is so wrong with being queer, that it is considered the height of inappropriateness and impropriety to assume someone is in fact queer before they've come out and said something.

Why is our societal default straight?

Obviously because there is something wrong with being anything else.

I hold my baby nephew in my arms and watch my younger sister fold diapers.

"Have you thought about having a baby?"

I have. A lot. More so now since T was born.

"I'm in graduate student. I'm not exactly financially stable" I say avoiding the question.

"Yeah" she says "but when you're done your course work maybe. When you're just working on your dissertation?"

I think about the added cost of artificial insemination, finding a sperm bank or clinic who will be willing to work with me. Finding a mid-wife or practice willing to work with me, a hospital were I won't need to worry about the staff while I'm in labor. Fighting with my health insurance over all this, the fact that in New York state being gay is not a good enough legal reason to require health insurance companies to cover fertility treatments.

"Margaret." I say "you know it won't be as easy for me."

She grows serious. "I know" she says "but I'll be there, I'll help. It will happen if you want it to."

I look down at my sleeping infant nephew.

Throughout the presidential election that fall politicians on both sides and people in general fight over gay marriage and LGBT issues.

It comes down to families, they say, it comes down to children.

According to a large number of Americans, a strikingly high percentage of which hold office, I am not deserving or fit to be a mother. 

I spend most of my time not watching tv and avoiding the news.

I cry a lot.

I visit my sister and my nephew often, learn to feed him from a bottle and carry him in the front carrier strapped tightly to me chest. I learn how to fold a diaper with one hand and how to write while he sleeps on my lap.

I'm told people will come around in time.

I am told we, as a country, have more important issues to worry about.

Washing dishes is one of my favorite tasks at the fast food joint where I work. It is quiet in back where the sinks are. When I'm washing dishes people don't scream at me or tell me I'm doing it wrong, they leave me alone.

There are no customers in the store so the three teenagers I work with are all up in front chatting together and eating chips.

As is usual the two girls start picking on the guy. They are close enough that I can catch snippets of their conversation.

"You are totally gay." one of the girls say nudging the guy with her shoulder "just look at the way you dress, and your hair. I mean you spend way more time and money on your hair than I do. You're not fooling anyone."

He blushes looking instantly uncomfortable "I'm not!" He protests "I have a girlfriend."

"Sure." both of the girls laugh.

"Come on." the other one says "just admit it, wouldn't you be happier with a boyfriend? Someone big and strong."

"He's such a little bitch, I'm sure he would." the other girl nudges her companion, grinning wide. "I bet he would love playing the girl. Wouldn't you?"

The young man looks close to tears now, the rest laugh obviously enjoying his discomfort.

I should go over there, I think, I should stop this, say something, point out that there is nothing wrong with being gay and either way it doesn't matter. I'm already the newest employee though, already the one to get the worst jobs no one else wants and to take the flack when someone is having a bad day. I don't want to make my position worse.

I look down at were my hands and arms are turning an angry red from the chemical disinfectant. The buzzer above the door chimes. The young man scurries away to help the customer and the young women's conversation moves on to something else.

I have long given up on there actually being queer characters I can relate to in television shows. GLBT characters on tv are almost unheard of and very few of them are geeky queers with a love of dapper men's wear, cooking and having stimulating intellectual conversations with their significant others.

Instead every once in a while a character comes along with a sort of introverted intellect I can identified with. Quiet, thoughtful, serious and intense, they are also ambiguous sexually, with that aura which, to me, reads as either asexual or queer or a combination of the two.

Yet inevitably they end up heterosexual. Always, whether it is a quick momentary fling or something serious, there is always a scene, always a moment where the writers make it absolutely clear, this character is supposed to be STRAIGHT.

The bargaining in my own mind always begins then: bisexual? Pansexual? A queer-ish relationship between two characters of the opposite gender? Gender variants? Can I swing it as a sort of lesbian-like relationship? An allegory for queerness?

And while the last thing I want to be is one of those fans that everyone hates who get upset because a heterosexual canonical pairing came between them and their slash ship of choice, a large part of me just wants to close my eyes and pretend it never happened.

Part of me does get angry, every time.

A part of me just feels alienated and alone.


I wake up early because my mom calls me, ecstatic, on the phone.

"Have you seen the news yet?" She asks.

"No." I rub my eyes and grope around for my glasses and laptop.

"They did it!" She says "New York voted to legalized gay marriage."

For a moment everything stops.

"Well" she says on the other end. "I just wanted to make sure you'd heard. I'll let you get up and make coffee now. I'm going to make sure you're bother knows." The gay one I assume, although Samuel will probably be happy to hear the news too.

I lie in bed staring at the ceiling after she hangs up.

This is it, I think, one day I can be married and have my marriage mean the same thing as my sister's and her husband's marriage under the law.

My relationship, my commitment will be respected and honored as equal to hers.

In this one way I am equal to her.

No longer less than.

No longer undeserving of respect and protection.

"You know," my housemate, also gay, tells me while we sit together sometime later that morning drinking coffee in the kitchen. "I've never thought about getting married. I'm not ready to settle down and even when I am, I'm not sure I agree with marriage enough to actually get married. So I've never really worried about gay marriage, or that it wasn't legal in New York. I thought when it happened it wouldn't matter to me but now that it has happened I think it does matter." She bends her head and thinks it about it. "I'm happier than I thought I would be. It means something, that I have the choice now."

I look down at the my coffee which shows a dark reflection of myself with bedhead, glasses, in pajamas. Her words stick with me, lodge somewhere inside.

It means something.

"Yeah," I say "I does."


So for the give-away. I am giving a way one (1) copy ebook of each of the following:

Zi Yong and the Collector of Secrets
Blood and Lipstick anthology
Queer Fear anthology

Please leave a nice comment with your contact information and which of the three works you would like.


  1. Brilliant blog post ^^ Thank you. Although you usually do write awesome posts anyway (: Totally sharing this one around.

    I haven't heard the term 'micro-aggression' before, but I do see it all the time. Makes me sad, although I do fuck all about it. Reckon every school and work place should have a dunce cap for these situations, that way you don't need to say anything, just fetch the cap.

    I'd really like to read the Queer Fear anthology. Love me some dark, fucked-up horror.
    Contact info is:

  2. Gut-wrenching post. I hope it makes a difference.

  3. thanks for the awesome blog post. couldn'tve said it better!

    i would love to win Blood and Lipstick anthology

  4. Thank you for taking part in the hop!

    I'd love to get a copy of Queer Fear.

  5. Brilliant post, hon. And I have to admit I'd never heart of heteronormalitivity. (I had to scroll up to spell it too - not sure I even did it right) ;)


  6. Thank you for your very thought provoking post. I've heard the term micro-aggression before but your very intimate anecdotes make the meaning very clear and personal.

    qbeeqt @ yahoo . com

  7. Thank you for sharing so much :) Beautiful post.


  8. Thank you so much for sharing some of your own stories with struggles with heteronormativity (new term for me).

    I would love a copy of Queer Fear anthology.

    humhumbum AT yahoo DOT com

  9. Thank you for sharing such compelling experiences. I hope they open many eyes.

    I would prefer: Zi Yong and the Collector of Secrets

    sophia-martin at hotmail dot com

  10. I've been pondering how to reply--what to say--to this post for a few days. It's so heartwrenching and so raw and I don't want to say something twee or offensive, no matter how unintentional. I want to say something that conveys just how strong you are, how amazing you are, but I don't know how. So all I will say is brava for this post and you are awesome.

    Zi Yong and the Collector of Secrets is one I'd like to read.

  11. same as L.J. I'm a bit at a loss ... and well I re-wrote the comment and deleted it in the end. This blog hop is really making my brain work.
    I've been thinking if I ever came across heteronormativity and micro-agressions - yep I did and they are so much worse because they aren't open - I can deal with open accusations but those masked hints they just make me feel helpless.
    So far I guess I have been too confusing for people to put me in a box - even can't label myself.

    Thank you so much for the personal stories.

    Queer fear would be the choice

  12. That is was such a heart-wrenching post. I wish that more people could understand that the comments that they make really hurt people.

    Anyway, I would love to read Queer Fear. Thanks.


  13. Wonderful post. We have far to travel in our quest.


  14. Thank you so much for sharing you wonderful post and participating in this amazing hop! I would love to read the Queer Fear anthology. Thanks.

  15. Thanks for your wonderful post. I've been sitting for two days now, trying to find something brilliant and moving to write. However, there's not much I can say, you covered it beautifully. I think it's sad that we have these different gender roles, I for one don't live up to several stereotypical female roles. I don't wear make-up, I don't obsess about my appearance. Heck, there's days where I roll out of bed, throw some clothes on, and leave. I'm more comfortable wearing pants than I am skirts or dresses. Most of my friends are guys, and there's times where they don't even really consider me a girl, I'm just "one of the guys", which I love. I love when people can overcome my gender and just accept me as who I am. Unfortunately, it just doesn't happen often.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story, and I can only hope, pray, and work towards a better future where people are open to all different genders and sexualities.

    I'd love to read the Queer Fear anthology, though I wouldn't mind trying the others, step outside my comfort zone a bit.


  16. Thanks for the post and hop.

  17. Like everything you write, this is moving because it's so full of the everydayness of the topic. Beautifully written. I'm so glad I finally got a minute to read it. All the love to you. <3

    I'm looking forward to reading all three of these stories; I admit to being a little trepidatious about the anthologies as wholes, since their themes are not my usual fare at ALL, but I particularly want to read your story in Blood and Lipstick, I think. :)

  18. it's a shame people are so hung up on 'straight'. small minds...

  19. Thank you for the post, I would take any of the three.

    peggy1984 at live dot com

  20. Thank you for taking part in the hop!
    sstrode at scrtc dot com

  21. Micro-aggression is definitely death by a thousand cuts. Even in more liberal states and cities, the heteronormative attitude definitely prevails.

    I present pretty obviously as female, but I'm still constantly irked and insulted by the genderist assumptions in play in the workplace, and pretty much everywhere. And the underlying homophobic attitudes... I've been pretty lucky so far, but I'm perpetually aware that 90% of my co-workers are churchgoing religious folk and I have had bad experiences there.

    It's tough to speak out against micro-aggressions without feeling like you're opening yourself up to exposure or ridicule. But, the training I've gone through often recommends a simple, direct "What do you mean by that?" to make people think about and maybe question their assumptions, followed up with an "ouch" to let them know their words are hurtful. It may not seem like much, but it's a start.

    I would love a copy of Queer Fear if I'm so lucky as to win. :) TalyaAndor at gmail.