Do I Look Straight To You?

How sexual profiling is hurting us, and what we can do to stop it

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I look straight.

At least, that’s what one friend told me when I came out to her as bisexual. “I just wouldn’t have guessed it,” she tried to explain after seeing my raised eyebrows, “I don’t mean it as, like, an offense or anything — I just feel like with some people you know, and other people you don’t.”

I suppose I can’t blame her — after all, it’s not as if I walk around toting my rainbow flag and a butch haircut. I don’t fit the stereotype of a girl who dates other girls. I have long(ish) hair, wear pretty floral dresses and have a cheesy cherry blossom tattoo on my bicep. All I’m missing is the cookie-cutter boyfriend to complete my “straight” look.

But here’s the thing — regardless of what I wear, what length I cut my hair or who I may be with, I’m not straight. I never will be.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that — despite how far our society has come in the battle for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance — many people still make assumptions about someone’s sexuality or even gender based solely on appearance. This phenomenon is called “sexual profiling”, and it isn’t helping anyone.

What “sexual profiling” looks like

If we haven’t done it, we’ve seen it on TV shows. We assume the loud, flamboyant guy dressed to the nines is gay. We believe the short-haired girl decked out in plaid and ripped jeans is a lesbian. We think the muscular, camo-clad man and the giggly girly-girl must be straight. When we assume someone’s sexuality based on their looks like this, we’re sexually-profiling them.

To a certain extent, profiling is necessary and instinctual. We make assumptions about people in order to understand them. You might approach a rugged country boy differently than a classy businessman.

However, one of the issues with sexual profiling is that we often rely on popular stereotypes when drawing conclusions. We assume the flamboyant man is gay because that’s what our culture has told us a gay man “looks” like. Anyone who doesn’t fit a stereotype of an LGBTQ+ member is immediately straight until proven otherwise.

Inferring someone’s sexuality based on appearance does not end well. Not only can lead to misunderstandings, but it tries to place people in one-dimensional boxes. It often makes LGBTQ+ members feel as if they must play the “role” of a gay man or a bisexual woman in order to have their sexuality recognized and validated.

Hearing my own friend’s blunt response made me feel like an outcast. It’s not as if I advertise my bisexuality everywhere I go, but hearing that I “look” straight made me feel — just for a second — like I didn’t fit into the LGBTQ+ community.

Fortunately, that moment of feeling like an outsider quickly passed, but it did leave me with a newfound passion to stop sexually-profiling other people.

How we can stop sexual profiling

Sexual profiling is a broad concept — especially when you apply it to gender. Although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to fully stop the practice, there’s an incredibly simple way to stop sexual profiling others in your life: just stop assuming people’s sexuality. (Seriously, I don’t think it could get any simpler than that).

Unless someone has told you explicitly that they’re straight or gay or bi or queer, you shouldn’t label them. Rather, you should assume that they could fall into any of the categories above.

When asking a female friend about her love life, I don’t say, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Instead, I’ll use a gender-neutral phrase like, “Are you seeing anyone special?” or even, “Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” Doing so can avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation — and if the person does happen to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s an easy way to make them feel comfortable about expressing their sexuality.

Although your first instinct upon seeing someone might be to categorize them, it will save both you and others a lot of trouble to stay away from assumptions.

To many people, I look straight. Although having someone automatically assume my sexuality based on my physical appearance can be frustrating, I’m not going to change how I look because of it. I’m not going to cut my hair or wear lumberjack shirts just so that I can fit into someone else’s idea of an LGBTQ+ stereotype.

What I will do is try my best to stop sexual profiling others. People are complex, and they don’t often fit into the clean, boxed-in categories that we want them to — so why try to trap them in the first place?

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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