Imagine this: A woman is walking down the street, and she runs into another woman she knows, not intimately, but they are acquaintances that always say hello to each other. The two stop, start talking and plan to get coffee later to catch up. Later, when they’re at a coffee shop, the first woman mentions that she has a new girlfriend whom she really likes. The second woman smiles, pauses, then looks at the first woman in a quizzical way. “I’m curious, how do two women have sex with each other? I’ve always wondered.” The first woman shifts in her seat, uncomfortable. “Well, umm, I don’t know how explain it, it’s guess it’s just like...”
This scenario, and various versions of this scenario, happen all the time. A person expects another person to explain the details of their “non-normative” life to them. These situations are often uncomfortable and can make the addressed person feel different or unseen. It makes sense that these scenarios happen. People are naturally curious. And curiosity, a desire to understand, is not inherently wrong. It’s actually quite a positive human attribute. But the waters get murky when we start to believe that we have a right to the personal details of how others live their lives.
This does not mean that we should live in ignorance, not seeking to answer our questions about how people experience their lives. It’s very important to be informed and educated and to be conscious that other people experience life differently than us. But the way of going about this self-education is not to rely on members of a certain community to educate us on their experiences. It’s important to do independent research ourselves.
We have some common examples of cultural curiosities people might have and might want to do research on:
Questions about transitioning--Not many people know the details about how a person can transition male to female or female to male etc. Mainly, it’s trans people that do the extensive research on gender-reassignment surgery, on hormones, on gender dysphoria. It’s common that people ask insensitive questions about what body parts a trans person has or doesn’t have. The fact is, trans people don’t always have all the answers; they’re going through a learning process too. And even if they do seem to have all the answers, it’s not a trans person’s responsibility to educate cis-gendered people on the details of their existence. There’s so much information out there--on the internet, in discussion groups--and it’s helpful to do that research independently.
Addressing people of a certain marginalized group--This happens a lot in classroom and discussion-based settings. The topic of race or sexuality or gender will arise, and the people associated with the topic will be invited to share their experience or understanding of this specific kind of racism/sexism/ableism etc. The problem is that no one person of color, no one queer person, no one disabled person, should have to serve as a spokesperson for their entire community. Singling out a person because of their identity places a burden on that person to explain their experience to a group of people who don’t share the same day-to-day struggles. That could be exhausting and frustrating.
Questions about mental health--Mental health is widely stigmatized. People struggling from eating disorders, anxiety and/or depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorders, etc., these people are often dismissed, excluded, or labeled as other. Many of us don’t do the research to educate ourselves about what certain mental health conditions entail and how we can provide support to someone struggling with their mental health. This lack of education can lead to unintended insensitivity. For example, asking someone with an eating disorder “how skinny they got” could be disturbing and triggering to a person recovering from an eating disorder. Likewise, casually labeling people with mental health conditions as “crazy” urges those who are struggling to feel ashamed and inherently wrong.
They/them pronouns-- There’s a lot of talk about pronouns these days. It’s encouraged in many spaces to include personal pronouns as part of one’s introduction to others. Despite a lot of well-meaning efforts to educate, there’s still a lot of confusion and questions about they/them pronouns. It’s important to remember that just because somebody uses they/them pronouns, they don’t owe us a explanation of their gender identity--just like someone who uses she/her pronouns doesn’t need to explain why she uses normative binary pronouns.
To some, all of this research might sound intimidating, even unnecessary. Many people are aggravated and overwhelmed that our culture seems so “sensitive” and socially intricate. But the point of all this isn’t to make people scared or hesitant to address each other. We are truly just talking about how we can best respect and value the people around us. This isn’t a call to maintain constant vigilance and perfect political correctness. We are here to encourage all of us to think deeply about how we are supporting those around us, how we are creating an atmosphere in which people, regardless of their background or identity, feel like they belong.