LGBTQ Microaggressions: Are We Making Mountains out of Molehills?

A room full of microaggressions. Demonstrators hold an anti-gay marriage rally inside the Utah State Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Social-science researchers and social-media activists are currently obsessed with so-called “microaggressions,” the many small ways in which minorities are reminded of their inferiority by the dominant culture. Crucially, microaggressors are often entirely unaware that they have displayed bias or negativity—unlike more traditional forms of bigotry, microaggressions are unconscious, baked into dominant cultural assumptions. Introduced by researchers of racial bias in a 2007 paper, the concept has migrated into work on sexual-minority populations. Studies have described common LGBTQ microaggressions, created scales to measure them, and suggested connections to problems like depression or poorer health outcomes for those on the receiving end.

In order to more widely publicize the concept, Kevin Nadal, a researcher and author of That’s So Gay!: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community helpfully compiled a list of “19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis” for BuzzFeed. The offenses run the gamut from the overtly rude (for example, asking a lesbian “Have you ever had REAL sex?”), to innocent mistakes (like addressing an androgynous-looking person with the “wrong” pronoun), or questions that casually assume heterosexuality (such as, “Where are your wife and kids?”).

That’s where the concept starts to get a little problematic. By placing so many different behaviors into the same category, researchers like Nadal intentionally attempt to blur the lines between overt homophobia, unintentional awkwardness, and even well-meaning but misguided attempts to be supportive. All these behaviors may occasionally make some LGBTQ people feel uncomfortable, and all of them may reinforce the dominant assumption that straightness and gender conformity is “normal” and being queer is “abnormal,” but some come from our enemies and others from our allies or potential allies. (Or perhaps even from curious or closeted LGBTQ people. Both times I’ve been asked “How do lesbians have sex?” the answer has eventually led to a personal demonstration of some of the key concepts.)

Lumping supporters and detractors together wouldn’t be so bad if it were simply a recognition that homophobia can be transmitted in subtle ways as well as in more obvious ones —but the researchers’ work seems to converge on the same prescription for the problem: educating the privileged majority out of saying anything that calls attention to the differences between sexual minorities and themselves, or to the incontrovertible (but apparently very hurtful) fact of their smaller numbers within the larger culture. In the BuzzFeed listicle, for instance, Nadal says:

We need to teach more people about microaggressions, in order to educate people about how hurtful microaggressions are and how they negatively affect people’s lives. We need people to be mindful of their language and the little things they do and say that harm people’s lives.

In other words, the remedy here is to tell people that their mistakes, awkwardness, and questions are inappropriate and will cause lasting damage to fragile, easily offended members of sexual- or gender-based minorities. Worse, because the act of policing oneself so strictly is likely to make people feel more self-conscious, and because awkwardness around LGBTQ people can itself be considered a microaggression, it’s hard to see any good way for straight supporters to extract themselves from this bear trap.

Luckily, the research itself provides hints of a second way. Recent work by Michael Woodford suggests that self-esteem can act as a protective mechanism from the harm usually experienced by being subjected to microaggressions. This makes intuitive sense. A confident, comfortably out LGBTQ individual is unlikely to experience much stress from being the object of honest curiosity or innocent mistakes. Such a person, backed by a robust, queer-friendly social network and having a secure sense of themselves both within the queer community and the culture at large, could perhaps even be expected to gently correct misapprehensions and answer genuine curiosity without being crippled by the recognition that they are somewhat different from the norm. By contrast, a person who is keenly aware of every potential slight or inadvertent error, one who is insecure in their identity and has internalized the idea that there is something wrong with them, will be much more damaged by day-to-day interactions with a dominant culture that regularly displays its ignorance about sexual- and gender-based minorities.

This suggests that with the right support and education to help build strong, confident, out identities, queers can become comfortable enough to field instances of unconscious bias in a way that helps win allies and correct mistaken ideas, leaving the broader movement for social change to focus on the sort of outright hostility that can’t be corrected by a friendly conversation or with a graceful answer to a silly question.

We’re at something of a crossroads here. We face a choice, either to see ourselves primarily as victims of a predominantly heterosexual society or as the successful agitators who have brought about historic change in a startlingly short time frame. My preferred view of my community is one of proud, out LGBTQ people living their lives with confidence and integrity, fully able to take the last few steps toward full equality together with our straight allies. But this doesn’t seem to jibe with the view of us as fragile and easily damaged by the wider world. If the LGBTQ community must choose between these two visions of queerness, let’s at least make sure that it’s a conscious choice and that the decisions we make now are in our own best interests.