I have a great unwillingness to assign people identities without their say so. (See We can do better than this, surely? and Invisible Identities.) I think it’s a pretty harmful idea to assume everyone you encounter is, for instance, heterosexual until they say otherwise. You can’t be sure of knowing the intimate details of someone’s sexual orientation (or other parts of their sexuality), ancestry, health, gender assignment at birth, life or history without them being told to you. And starting off with the default setting set up by normativisation is not the greatest idea any of us have ever had.
I think it’s also a bad idea to assume the reverse. That is, that someone is, in this example, queer based on behavioural stereotypes. And I’ve known way too many people who have felt they’ve had to shy away from behaving in ways that were coded white or straight because they were going to be frowned upon by their ethnic or queer community. Or that they had to tone down their otherness for the sake of safety. Too many people feel as though they have to put on a uniform to fit in, and not just one of clothes, but of speech and manner and action.
It’s pretty twisted when you can only be this one way until pointed out otherwise, and, when you are otherwise, you have to conform to a very particular image of being so. And if you aren’t the other in this particular instance, but are coded as such? Well, some people would have it that the coding is more important than your identity, your history, how other people read you, how you go through the world.
I’m so routinely subject to so many assumptions of these kinds that I have rather taken to enjoying seeing people’s expectations get smashed as they struggle to reconcile seemingly opposed aspects of my identity. How can I be all of me at once? It’s a question of my taking perverse pleasure in this or getting crushed under the strain. And I do love a little ambiguity.
We know stereotypes are bad, because they push people into boxes they don’t belong, and out of boxes in which they do, and because they require boxes at all. But it’s also a matter of ownership. It’s probably an idea to wait for people to volunteer their identity information, if you really must have it. People shouldn’t be obliged to disclose marginalised identities. It’s not a matter of cowardice or showing proper pride, and it’s not even only a matter of safety; it’s about one’s self not being public property. But at least it’s one step up from making blanket assumptions.