While this blog is about answering any questions people have about queerness, there are some questions that are best left unasked. Every queer person has had, at some point, an embarrassing and painful conversation with a well-meaning straight person around identity. The questions that lead to these painful conversations are incredibly damaging. But luckily, they are also repetitive. So, I'm going to give you, a hopeful ally of the queer community, an idea of what questions to steer away from when it comes to asking queer people about their identities. These are from my own personal experience as well as conversations I have been a part of in multiple queer communities. While this blog post is written to educate those wanting to be allies, my main focus here is to protect queer people. So, I will be very blunt in my responses to these questions I, and others, have received. This is to help allies learn quickly and also reduce as much queer pain as possible. With that disclaimer done, here they are!
9 Questions Not to Ask Queer People
1) Have you had the surgery yet? What's in your pants? Or, What's your birth sex?
These questions apply generally to transgender folks and sex reassignment surgery and should never really be asked, unless you have been given express permission to discuss someone's genitals. While you may be comfortable mentioning things surrounding genitals in public, like menstrual periods, I can imagine that if I asked you how long your penis is, you might have quite a shocked reaction. It helps, with questions like these, to check if it is appropriate by turning it around and asking it, or a similar question, to yourself. You might let out an uneasy chuckle at how uncomfortable a question becomes when you do this.
2) But if you've never slept with someone of the same sex, then how do you know you are queer?
Again, in turning this question around we can see some issues. Should I ask you how you knew you were straight? Did you have to have sex with a woman to know you, a cisgender man, were straight? Or vice versa? If you're asking someone about how they came out to themselves as queer, then you should ask that (within the boundaries of your relationship with them). But by asking a question about sexual activites you are both invading someone's privacy and invalidating their identity.
3) Now that you're dating someone of the opposite gender, are you straight? But you dated a man once, so how are you a lesbian?
This one is along the same lines as the last one. By asking a question like this you are acting like a person's identity as queer is dependent on their partner. A person's identity is actually based on their own self, not the perceptions of others. So, this kind of question can cause a lot of pain for queer folk who don’t "look queer enough" for a straight, cisgender society. And as for the second piece, I reiterate, a queer identity is not something that you can choose for someone nor is it based on others perceptions. Someone may have tried dating men because society told them they had to, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a lesbian if they say they are. You don't get to question a queer persons sexuality, just like they don't get to question yours.
4) Who's the man/or/woman in your relationship? Who wears the pants in your relationship?
If it is a relationship of two women then there isn’t a man in the relationship. That's kind of the whole point. I mean, you can assume that they both wear pants at some point during the day, modern society has made it quite normal for that to happen. But if you are actually asking which person in the relationship upholds the patriarchal expectations of a "man of the house" you’re looking in the wrong place. It's like a fork and a knife asking a pair of chopsticks which one of them is the fork. It just doesn't work like that. And most queer couples work hard to deconstruct the gender roles they were indoctrinated with growing up. So, asking them questions like this can do some real damage to their emotional state and your relationship, even if it is as a joke.
5) What type of queer are you?
I, personally, am vanilla with chocolate frosting and green sprinkles. Oh- you weren't asking me what type of cake I am? Well it kinda sounded like you were. I am queer, and I can almost guarantee that you don't know that randomly. You probably only know that I’m queer because I told you I was. Or I told you something that outed me as queer. Queer people rarely let you know accidentally that they're queer. If you know, they probably choose to let you know. So I would suggest being satisfied with just knowing that someone is queer and caution you from asking for specifics that were not offered to you. Because I'm not a cake, I'm a human being. And I, like others, prefer to self disclose my flavour of queer.
6) Did it hurt your parents when you came out?
Asking questions that ignore the pain queer people hold and instead focuses on the pain of those that hurt us, is NOT recommended. Ever. This conversation is incredibly triggering for many queer people.
Here are some statistics from the Trevor Project for context around trauma and family reactions
(Trigger Warning: these stats talk about suicidality and trauma)
1 in 4 homeless people in Canada are queer, and that is primarily a result of family members kicking them out of the house when they come out as queer.
Queer youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
Queer youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide as their queer peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
So, when you ask about how a parent felt when someone come out as queer you could also be asking someone how their abuser felt when they became a victim to their abuse. Words hold power, and questions like this are more potent than others.
7) Are you attracted to me?
No. If they were attracted to you, they would tell you. Don't go thinking that just because someone is queer they suddenly have the hots for every person of the same gender in a 45 kilometer radius.
8) Have you acted on it?
This question generally comes from religious folks who don't "approve of the queer lifestyle". And to it I usually say, "why are you so invested in my sex life? That’s kinda weird, friend." I get quite a lot of blushing responses to that statement! But in all seriousness, I highly recommend that you don't ask questions that invade people's privacy. If you wouldn't want to be asked if you consummated your marriage to your partner, maybe don’t ask if someone has acted on their ”homosexual desires”.
9) What do you think about trans kids in sports? What do you think about * insert every hot button issue to do with queer people ever*?
Having one's rights debated daily in judicial courts, around the US and Canada specifically, is really exhausting. And having a question randomly asked about these issues can add to that already exhausting piece of existence for queer people. If you are in a conversation where a queer person has volunteered their voice then by all means, engage in the conversation. But bringing these topics up out of the blue can be triggering and damaging to someone's mental health. Or it could just be annoying. Both reactions are valid, and ones that should be considered before asking a question.
All this to say, please gauge your ability to ask these incredibly personal questions carefully. If you have the privilege of being a close friend and ally to queer people then you are also privileged with the task of protecting and respecting their boundaries. Talk with your close friends, lay out specific boundaries around these topics. Ask them about their comfort level when it comes to personal questions. Build a foundation of mutual respect and care before delving into things you might be curious about. All of this protects queer people better and gives them a safe space to self-disclose.
And don't forget, Google is an amazing resource. Plug that question verbatim into the Google search bar and see what happens, you might just learn something!