Within the LGBTQ+ community it's all too easy to get caught up in our own 'sub'culture and forget that what is obvious to us, is not necessarily so obvious to everyone else. Lucy Cobbles explores some of the basics in approaching the gay community, what you need to know and what is absolutely none of your business. Here are her top ten tips for people who are not quite sure how to approach the LGBTQ+ community, on how to do so respectfully.
*Tip 1: gay people are not aliens, you need not 'approach with caution', all will be well.
1) Lets move beyond the 'us' and 'them' culture
Someone may be gay, trans, pansexual, bi, asexual... whatever, but it does not make them inherently different from someone who is straight. The intersection of our identities and personalities is way more complicated than that, so lets move beyond this divided mentality of 'gay people' and 'straight people.' If you identify as straight then please don't think of the gay community as some kind of alien movement. We're human beings with the same desires and motivations. We're also your family, your friends, and your neighbours, part of the community you live in and not a group that occasionally spring up covered in rainbows for gay nights out. There is no 'us' and 'them', there is simply a range of sexuality and a variation of human experience.
2) Check definitions
It's ok if you don't know what pansexual means, or if you are initially confused by the correct words to use when talking about trans people. It's not ok if you choose to stay ignorant. If you're reading this then you have access to the internet, and should be using it to research what all these terms mean. There are loads of sites that break it all down for you and explain both what the LGBTQ+ acronym stands for, and what the '+' includes.
Having said this, people obviously understand their own sexuality better than you do, so listen to them when they explain it. If you read one definition of 'asexual' on wikipedia then that doesn't give you the right to correct an ace person if they explain it a little differently. Have a read around, flick through what different members of the gay community are writing about their own identities and learn more about the people you share a community with.
3) There is a difference between gender and sexuality
This could really be the title of a novel so I'm just going to touch the tip of the ice berg: gender and sexuality are two different things and, although sometimes interconnected, should not be thought of as synonymous. Being a gay man does not mean that you will necessarily display more effeminate behaviour; it may do sometimes but they are different things. Who one is sexually attracted to, does not determine your gendered characteristics and behaviour.
It is slightly confusing that trans rights are included within the LGBTQ+ spectrum, as trans people have been misgendered. If you know someone is trans then you know their correct gender identity, you do not know their sexuality! Please do not assume that a particular gender identity or behaviour necessitates a particular sexuality, or vice versa.
4) Being a gay ally
It is a great thing to be a gay ally and is really appreciated by many in the movement, but it is not the same thing as being gay. Empathy for LGBTQ+ friends and loved ones should be encouraged, but you will never experience homophobia vicariously. If you are invited along to gay spaces then certainly attend and support, but don't crash a queer only space out of enthusiasm, it's not respectful to people who need a safe space.
5) Listen to others
People who identify as a particular sexuality always know most about it. I know very few people who don't know someone who identifies within the LGBTQ+ spectrum so listen to them if they talk to you about that identity. Create the space for people to share their story and engage with what they have to say about it. If it's not appropriate to talk to people within your personal life then go along to talks, or watch a few YouTube videos by people on the subject. There's always more to learn but listening is a great place to start.
6) Check consent
Checking consent is a useful, albeit 'catch- all' phrase that reminds us to treat people with respect and check in with them to make sure they're comfortable. It's important to check people's preferred gender pronouns for example, not assume the gender of their partner and ask how they would describe their sexuality. Checking consent is most commonly talked about in a sexual context and, whilst this is very important, it is also important to apply in day to day life.
7) Find the line between interested... and nosy!
Its great to be interested in people's stories and, as I already said, listening is very important. However, people may well not want to share their personal life with you, or may be tired of being asked the same questions over and over. Be respectful about personal boundaries and don't overstep the mark. You wouldn't walk up to a straight couple and start shooting off questions about which sex positions they prefer, or 'how they do it', so don't do the same to a gay couple. Learn some basic information for yourself and ask questions as and when it's appropriate to do so.
8) Stop stereotyping
It's really tiring to be stereotyped within the gay community so please don't do it. It shouldn't still need to be said but not all gay men are effeminate, not all lesbians are butch, not all asexual people are prudes, not all bi/pansexual people are 'confused' etc. etc. etc. Don't label people according to the box you choose to fit them within. Being 'straight' does not define your character, gender, or behaviour and neither does being gay. Human beings are more beautifully diverse than that- something that should be celebrated rather than shied away from.
9) Individuals within the LGBTQ+ circle are very different
Every individual within the LGBTQ+ community is unique, and will also interpret their own sexuality a little differently. Some people who are asexual simply have no interest in sex and others feel no arousal but still want to be sexually active. A trans man may still want to wear make up and some will want to present in 'traditionally masculine' ways. Some bisexual people will only ever be with men or only women and that's ok and none of your business... You get the idea, the movement is exciting because of it's diversity and expression of multiple identities.
10) Explore your own sexuality
Whilst, it's perfectly ok to be straight, it's also ok to experiment with your sexuality - whatever age or gender you are. I recognise that it's definitely easier to do this within certain contexts and environments than others, but if you feel safe to do so: explore your sexuality! How do you know you're straight or gay or pan? What do those identities mean to you? Don't lie to others, or lead them on, but if you have a consensual partner then explore the unknown. You might surprise yourself or find that every rule has an exception. Maybe you're a part of the LGBTQ+ community too.