Public Service Reminder: Sexual Orientation is Internal

I’ve been engaging in a lot of conversations lately about various aspects of queer sexuality – what else is new? – and it occurred to me that a lot of people hold a huge misconception about sexual orientation.

Many people think you can tell a person’s sexual orientation from how they look, move, or speak. This could not be further from the truth.

In fact, you can never actually know someone’s sexual orientation unless they tell it to you in no uncertain terms. It’s just not something that can be definitively read. Doesn’t matter how good you think your “gaydar” is, or how much you think you know the “signs” – there’s literally no way to know for sure how someone identifies, unless they tell you themselves.

This extends to gender identity and trans* status, too. I’ve heard all too many people claim they’ve “never met a trans person,” but the thing is, they don’t know that. There aren’t any foolproof, telltale signs. Thinking you know whether someone is trans is as ignorant as thinking you know someone’s STI status just by looking at them – you don’t. There’s no way you could.

As a queer femme in a relationship with a dude, I get misread all the time. I understand perfectly well why it happens – I “look straight” (i.e. girly and not particularly “alternative” in any way), and I’m often holding hands with a member of the opposite sex. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I recall the time I got booed at a Pride event for kissing my boyfriend, and how hurtful that was. That person assumed I was straight. They don’t know me and they don’t know what’s in my heart, but they thought they did, and that hurts.

But the thing is, practically everyone does it. I did it myself, the other day. A guy I volunteer with, who I’d always assumed was gay because he’d been telling me about the man he was seeing, suddenly mentioned that he doesn’t identify as gay. I still don’t know how he does identify, but it was a great reminder that we all need to stop making so many assumptions and just have the courage to ask if we’re curious. It’s been my experience, in queer and trans* communities, that asking someone “What do you identify as?” or “What pronouns do you use?” or “What kind of person are you usually attracted to?” is not frowned upon, but instead, almost always welcomed. People love to talk about themselves, especially if asked in a respectful, genuinely interested way.

How do you identify? Where do you lie on the Kinsey scale? Do you ever get misread for an identity that doesn’t fit you? How do you deal with that?