How Heterosexism Built the Closet

I was walking through a local grocery this week when I saw a father holding his young son in his arms. The boy was probably pre-kindergarten given his size. He looked like a healthy kid asking his dad a lot of questions. His father responded in a near sing-talk voice that most parents of young children take on. He was explaining something to his son, since he was at the age of asking questions like “why is the sky blue” and “can I be an elephant?”

He said to his son, “Boys go with girlfriends and girls go with boyfriends. Yup. There are boys for girls and girls for boys.” I heard this and my heart felt like a peach dropped on the floor.

The insidious assumption that heterosexuality is the default, or what someone should be, is the bedrock foundation of homophobia. Statistically, the chances are in the father’s favor that his son is cisgender and straight but I don’t know his identity. I’m sure this guy is a good dad, he seems to lovingly hold his child and patiently explain “the facts” to him. I’m sure this guy doesn’t think anything bad can happen from this explanation. But what if that kid is gay? What if she doesn’t know how to express her gender identity as a girl yet? What if he ends up in a relationship with someone who isn’t cisgender or straight?

The assumption of heteronormativity is dangerous. When someone comes out of the closet, they are coming out of the heteronormative assumption that they are straight. Since straight is the default, you have to scream “We’re here! We’re queer!” It can be a painful process for some people, many have risked public shaming, being disowned from family, even losing their jobs. One of the big reasons suicide risk is so high with gay and trans teenagers is due to bullying. The closet is what also puts trans people at risk of being accused of lying about their identity. Not to mention higher rates of assault. Not everyone has a tragic story about the closet or coming out, but everyone in the community knows someone who does.

What would happen if we didn’t make this assumption? What if there was no closet? What if everyone maintained an open dialogue about orientation and gender? If we were all encouraged to openly discuss this, there would be no closet for sexual orientation and trans folks wouldn’t be “lying” about their identity.

This is why I ask about sexual orientation and gender pronouns on my forms. I don’t want someone to feel pressured to come out to me, I want it to be clear that I ask everyone those type of questions. And yes, I see straight people who probably cock their head to the side when they see that on the form. It’s important that they see it, it’s another form of visibility.

Since visibility has increased exponentially, we might very well be able to kill the closet in my lifetime. The boy in the grocery store will see happy gay couples on tv screens and in movies. He’ll probably have interactions with people of various orientations in school and at his workplace. Hopefully, he’s open to receiving this with an open heart and understands that what his father told him was just one possibility for love. Hopefully, he never feels closeted himself.