Saturday, September 12, 2015

Make an ass out of you and everyone

Pop quiz

Imagine that I give you a quiz where you're supposed to determine whether a bunch of statements are true or false.  Upon reading the statements, you find that they are too obscure, and you have no idea what to make of any of them.  However, I give you the hint that 80% of the statements are true, and the other 20% are false.  How should you proceed?

If you say that 80% of the statements are true and the other 20% are false, then your expected score will only be 68%.  Clearly, you should guess that every single statement is true.  You will only get an 80% on the quiz, but that's the best you can do.

Now imagine instead that we're talking about people.  You're at a high school reunion, and to be honest you haven't interacted with a single person here since graduation.  You know that around 5% of your former classmates are queer, but you don't know which ones.  How would you make your guesses?

This is a loaded question of course.  Why would you ever need to guess?  Why not just assume nothing of anyone?

The irony is that while queer people (or anyone who invisibly deviates from the norm) are the biggest losers in the assumption game, they are also in a unique position to recognize the value of the same assumptions.

Assumption spaces

There's a reason why queer safe spaces are needed.  They are spaces where you can assume that everyone else is queer, or at least very sympathetic.  When an intruder comes into a safe space and attacks people, it's considered worse than the same attack outside the safe space, because it's also an attack on our ability to make assumptions.

Queer dating, clubbing, and hookups are even more in need of assumptions.  Among my queer male friends, it's a perpetual problem to be meeting men in straight spaces (such as the gym), and to have to guess, based on subtle cues, whether they're straight or not.  In an ideal world, you could just ask, but in the real world, this is potentially dangerous, as a lot of straight guys don't take kindly to the mere thought that they could be like us.  Even when not dangerous, it can be uncomfortable, and just plain disheartening to know you'll be automatically rejected 95% of the time.  A lot of queer guys simply aren't up to the risks, and prefer to meet people through designated queer spaces.

[cn: sexual assault] Spaces with special assumptions can have problems.  For example, one of the things I complain about is the ubiquity of sexual assault in gay night clubs.  The problem is there are multiple ideas about what kinds of assumptions are acceptable.  Some think it's okay to grope people non-consensually because they think it's the social assumption in those spaces.  Other people in the same spaces think that's not an acceptable assumption anywhere and you should get consent first (nonverbal consent due to loud music).  The common response is that it's the victim's fault for not understanding the assumptions.  No, I understand the assumptions, I just reject them, and reject the supposition that everyone in the space has ever shared those assumptions.

Signals vs stereotypes

Moving beyond queer spaces, many queer people are still sick of the assumptions placed upon them on a daily basis.  So often they'll adopt signals to make their queerness more visible.  Often the most effective signals you can adopt closely resemble stereotypes.  With gay men in my area, there are a number of fashion markers and mannerisms that allow a gaydar to work.  People aren't necessarily signalling intentionally, but many gay men happen to like these markers, and aren't especially bothered by appearing gay, since they are gay, after all.

This is understandably uncomfortable, because aren't we basically contributing to the stereotypes?  And by merely reading those signals, aren't I imposing those stereotypes on possibly unwilling people?  Rather than combatting assumptions, we're trying to take advantage of them and guide them in the right direction.

And what about people who can't access those stereotypes?  Black queer people can't make themselves white, but unfortunately in our culture that's basically what they'd have to do to send a clear signal.  "I hate signals so much!" "I wish I could signal too!"

Guessing is a battleground

Many people have talked about a distinction between "ask" culture and "guess" culture.  In ask culture, if you want something then you ask for it, even knowing that you may not get it.  In guess culture, it's only polite to ask for things that you're reasonably sure you'll receive.

Ask and guess culture also apply to gender.  In many queer spaces, it's common to ask people for pronouns, because in general you can't tell what gender a person is by seeing how they look.  This is especially important for inexperienced people (unfortunately the same group of people who tend not to understand why it's important), since they may otherwise base guesses on harmful stereotypes.

But trans people, understandably, don't want to spend their entire lives confined to queer spaces, and they have to deal with these guesses and assumptions everywhere.  I've heard many queer people express a desire that we should ask people for pronouns everywhere, not just in queer spaces.  Unfortunately, this strikes most people as extreme.  Society at large clearly has a guess culture with respect to gender; many people would find it insulting if you asked their pronouns when they think they're being perfectly clear.

It's a common saying that "When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME".  But people clearly like assumptions and derive some value from them.  Assumptions in the public realm are defended fiercely.  Queer people also derive value from assumptions and create spaces and signalling structures around them.

It's about time that we recognize assumptions on their own terms, containing both good and bad.