When you’re an LGBTQ person living in a heteronormative, cisnormative world, encounters of subtle discrimination, known as microaggressions, are a frustrating yet often unavoidable part of daily life.
Microaggressions are the everyday “slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages” to members of a marginalised group, according to Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue, who has written several books on the subject.
The term microaggression was first coined in the 1970s by Chester M. Pierce — a Black Harvard psychiatrist — in relation to the more insidious forms of racism that Black people face. In the years since, the concept has been applied to other folks of colour, women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community and other groups.
In many cases, the offender is well-meaning and unaware they’ve said or done something rude or hurtful.
“LGBTQ people are often pathologised in overt and covert ways,” Kevin Nadal — a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community” — told HuffPost. “For example, asking a woman if she has a husband or a boyfriend — hence, presuming her heterosexuality — or telling a bisexual that they’d probably be happier if they they chose a heterosexual relationship.”
“It hurts whether they meant to do it or not.”
– Sebastian Lopez Calvo, therapist
On their face, microaggressions may appear harmless or trivial. People, especially those with privilege, might think these seemingly innocuous comments should be easy to ignore. But over time, these kinds of interactions can do considerable damage. Research has found a link between people who experience microaggressions and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and trauma, as well as physical health issues like high blood pressure.
“It hurts whether they meant to do it or not,” he said. “Over time, that bruise may get bigger from being bumped so much and it won’t end up healing. In the same way, what would otherwise be singular slights become overwhelming when compounded with each recurrence.”
How To Respond To A Microaggression
Should you ignore it? Roll your eyes? Confront it now while it’s fresh? Or say something later on after you’ve had time to process what happened? That’s really your call and depends on the circumstances. First, take your physical safety into account. If that’s not an issue, consider, too, your relationship to the offender, the setting (you might choose to handle a microaggression in the workplace differently than you would at a backyard barbecue with friends) and whether you have the emotional bandwidth to have the conversation.
If you do want to say something in the moment, one simple strategy is to ask, “What do you mean by that?”
“Sometimes when people make microaggressive comments, they may not even be aware that what they said was problematic,” Nadal said. “But asking them to clarify gives them an opportunity to hear or reflect on what they just said, perhaps correct themselves or even apologise.”
“If we all have been socialised to have certain biases and prejudices, then we are capable of enacting those biases in our words and actions.”
– Kevin Nadal, psychology professor
And what about if you’re the one who committed the microaggression? First, recognise that it doesn’t make you a bad person. Many people with good intentions inadvertently say hurtful or offensive things from time to time. We all have blind spots.
“If we all have been socialised to have certain biases and prejudices, then we are capable of enacting those biases in our words and actions,” Nadal said. “What’s most important is that when you are called out, try to manage any defensiveness, which is a human reaction. You may even try to validate what the person is saying and how it affected them, and even to apologise if you hurt them.”
We asked LGBTQ folks to share some of the microaggressions they’ve had to deal with in their everyday lives. Below they share their stories.
1. Assuming one partner is the “man” and the other is the “woman” in queer relationships.
“I’m in a butch-femme relationship with my fiancé. When it comes to doing any activity where we have to interact with heterosexuals, my butch fiancé is often deferred to as the stand-in man, while I am sidelined as the woman. A great example of this is our recent visit to an RV dealership. I was buying an RV in my name and with my money, and my fiancé was there with me, as my decision would affect the both of us. Both the dealer and finance officer directed all financial, mechanical and logistical questions at my fiancé, rather than myself.
“This is the frustrating ‘double bind’ many lesbians face: We are unintelligible to a cis heterosexual society so outdated that patriarchal dynamics are forced onto our relationships during everyday, minute interactions. Masculine queer women are often seen as quasi-men without the respect or rights granted to cis men, while femme queer women are treated as lesser than due to their femininity.” — Sara Youngblood Gregory, writer covering sex, disability and health care for queer and trans folks
2. Referring to being LGBTQ as a “choice” or “lifestyle.”
“This microaggression is so deeply rooted that people who do this have no awareness why it’s problematic. It hurts to the core that it could even be perceived, even subconsciously, to be a choice. I’m proud to be gay and this is not something I chose. It negates the lived experience and adversity that comes from having had this identity.” — Patrick Tully, psychotherapist
3. Asking invasive questions about someone’s body like, “What parts do you have down there?”
“Questions like these harm our community on so many levels. Not only is this a personal question that is an invasion of our privacy but it also suggests that to you, knowing someone’s sex is an important part of understanding their gender identity. In fact, that’s not true at all.
“Sex and gender are two separate things: sex is what we are assigned at birth and gender refers to a person’s ‘deep held sense of their gender.’ It’s not necessary to know someones sex in order to understand them. By asking, ‘What parts do you have?’ you are invalidating our experiences of gender expression and identity. I think it’s important to ask yourself instead why you feel you need to know this.” — Az Franco, trans non-binary activist and writer
4. Telling someone that they don’t “look non-binary.”
“There’s no single way to look non-binary, as the term covers a wide range of gender identities and expressions. Rather than, at best, seeking to understand and come with humble curiosity, this imposes one’s gendered assumptions on another person’s body and urges them to explain deeply personal identities and choices — often in contexts that are completely inappropriate, like a grocery store line or a work meeting.” — Aida Manduley, trauma-focused therapist and sexuality educator
5. Expecting a gay person to have a certain personality or interests based on stereotypes.
“On several occasions, I have had girls get excited finding out that I was gay and immediately proposing that I could go shopping with them or they expected every comment to be followed by, ‘yass, queen!’ They were disappointed when I wasn’t that ‘type’ of gay man that they saw on television shows and movies over and over again. This hurt because they didn’t see me as a person who was fighting on a daily basis to live and love but as an accessory. While on their end they saw me as a ‘best friend,’ I use the term ‘accessory’ because it was clear that when it came to voting for gay rights, they were not supportive.” — Jan-Kristòf Louis-Mansano, school counsellor
6. Asking a trans person when they’re having “the surgery.”
“This question makes me feel as though I’m not enough as who I am. It not only implies that as trans people we must have surgeries in order to be valid, whole people, but also that there is ‘one universal surgery’ that trans people must have in order to be ‘successfully’ trans in the world. This simply is not the case. Many trans people choose never to have surgeries, many cannot afford to have them. It is an oversimplification and generalisation to ask, ‘When are you having the surgery,’ not to mention that it’s factually incorrect.”— Franco
“They were disappointed when I wasn’t that ‘type’ of gay man that they saw on television shows and movies over and over again.”
– Jan-Kristòf Louis-Mansano, school counselor
7. Assuming a queer person can’t relate to straight people.
“As a sex educator, I’ve heard this dozens of times: ‘How can you give relationship advice to straight people, if you’re not straight?’ I’ve even been asked at a job interview, ‘Most people you’ll be working with are straight, do you think you’ll really be able to connect with them?’ This lens is reductive, to say the very least. Widen that aperture, people! Assuming that my contributions, or years of work and life experience in my field, should be discounted because I’m queer is frustrating with a capital ‘F.’” — Francisco Ramirez, sex educator, speaker and consultant
8. Asking a lesbian how they have sex.
“It’s usually strangers I meet or relatives alike! It’s like the first question that pops into their head. You can see the mental gymnastics in their head, trying to figure out sex. I just feel bad for them at the end of the day because if thats the first question they just have to ask, they’re likely having some pretty boring sex. It’s so invasive and personal, and it’s rooted in misogyny. People, mostly men, automatically think I owe them an answer or the time to stop and listen to this trash. Those people also tend to think sex isn’t sex without penetration or a penis involved.” — Tevy Khou, illustrator
9. Refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns because it’s “too hard” or “grammatically incorrect.”
“Anytime we prioritise alleviating someone’s temporary discomfort or learning edge over respecting someone’s identifiers — particularly for people of continuously, structurally marginalised identities — we’re doing something harmful! Furthermore, ‘they’ has been widely used and accepted as referring to both single and plural for years (both in explicitly gender-affirming ways as well as casual situations where gender is unknown, e.g., ‘someone left their water bottle here!’). And it’s been more formally and loudly recognised by various linguistic authorities such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Plus, language evolves — get with it!” — Manduley
10. Asking a person if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife based on their gender expression.
“In these instances, it becomes apparent that the person speaking sees heterosexuality as the only option for femmes. The queer community is not a monolith and the way we look, dress, exist, experience relationships and take up space in the world is not a one-size-fits-all box. Each of us are unique, valuable, and beautiful and our individuality is everything. Our identities are limitless and not up for anyone to tell us who they think we are.” — Tamara, teacher behind the @ifpencilscouldtalk Instagram account
11. Thinking you can “turn” a person straight.
“One friend I used to have, a straight man, used the Kinsey scale as a reason why he thought lesbians and gay men aren’t 100% homosexual. To be fair, he said the same of himself, but this was misuse of the Kinsey scale, and harmful to people who face conversion therapy, and everyday I encounter dummies who think lesbians or bisexual women are faking it, or just need to find the right guy. It feeds into rape culture. With more gender expressions and sexual orientations becoming accepted, ideas based on misogyny can co-opt those communities under the guise of ‘sexual liberation.’ In short, I’m not this guy’s friend anymore and I’m a lot happier about it.” — Khou
12. Excluding an LGBTQ person’s partner from family activities.
“As a white Latina — and as a femme presenting (read: straight-passing) cis woman — the microaggressions I experience are often more subtle than those of my other queer BIPOC kin. They do happen though, and they can be hurtful.
“Just recently, a family member sent a ‘Happy Easter’ message to me, my sisters and my two brothers-in-law — but not including my partner, Richael, with whom I’d been married for months. It was one of many reminders that as my family elders look at the relationships in our family, ‘one of these is not like the others.’” — Adiel Suarez-Murias, human rights communications professional
13. Speaking on behalf of LGBTQ people without letting them have a voice in the room.
“Trans people deserve to have a voice and especially in rooms that are discussing how to best support trans people. An example of this is in a workplace, school or institution wanting to have inclusivity training and discuss how best to support their transgender students, employees or clients. It is very harmful if trans people are not in these rooms to facilitate and guide those conversations, so that they can share what would be the most supportive for them. As much as I appreciate cisgender voices using their privilege to make a difference, they’re inadvertently silencing me. As close as you may be to someone who’s transgender you can never fully understand what it is like to be transgender.” — Nicole Talbot, singer, actress and advocate for transgender youth
14. Asking someone you just met to share their coming out story or sexual history.
“Often when I meet someone new ― and this usually happens with men of all ages ― I’m asked about how I ‘knew’ I liked girls, if I’ve been with men to ‘make sure,’ or what my coming out story is. Straight entitlement to queer people’s origin stories, bodies, sexuality, gender identity and privacy is extremely invasive and inappropriate. I do not owe anyone my coming out story or sexual history in order to provide insight, entertainment or a sob story for a straight audience. I think this impulse is part entitlement and part confusion. For most straight people, the only digestible narrative available is that queer folks come out to their parents. What if we stopped authenticating queer lives by our relationship to the closet? What if we met queer folks where they’re at?” — Youngblood Gregory
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.