The Default Is No Default

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Issue 14, Volume 112

By Peter Goswami 

Cover Image

About three to four years ago, I attempted to come out to my brother. He responded by asking me, “How do you know? Aren’t you too young to figure out your sexual feelings?” Apart from the awkwardness of my brother asking me about my “sexual feelings,” I was irked by the fact that my brother wanted an explanation of how I figured out my sexuality instead of choosing to believe what I know about my identity.

Three months ago, when I came out as nonbinary, one of my acquaintances asked me, “Why did you change your pronouns on a whim?” This question, perhaps unintentionally, reinforced the false idea that I’d be been living life as a cisgender male until I suddenly, “whimsically” decided to change my pronouns.

Both of these situations demonstrated the pervasiveness of the idea of the cisgender and heterosexual identity as the default. My brother’s questioning of how I figured out my sexuality is a type of questioning that straight people do not have to face because straightness is assumed as the baseline until someone declares otherwise. Even the term straight itself is a way of establishing that heterosexuality is treated as the norm. When I first attempted to come out to my brother, the idea of heterosexuality as the default influenced me to tell him I was bisexual despite never experiencing heterosexual attraction. At the time, I believed it was expected, whereas my own attraction to the same sex was considered the “deviant.” This standard only made it harder to come to terms with my identity as a gay person.

The implication that changing my pronouns to they/them was a whimsical decision further reinforced the idea of cisgender being the default identity. This idea forced my coming to terms with my gender identity to be seen as a sudden change or an impulsive choice, rather than a conscious realization of my gender followed by a change in pronouns to feel comfortable in who I was. Realizing my gender identity would not have been as difficult if cisgender wasn’t assumed as the default. I questioned my gender many times before accepting the truth, but every time the question arose, I suppressed it by telling myself that identifying as male and using he/him pronouns was convenient because it was considered “normal.” In both situations, cisgender and straight being the default only made it harder to come to terms with my identity because it required me to think of myself as such unless I could concretely label myself otherwise.

The perpetuation of cisheteronormativity as the standard is further demonstrated in the societal need to come out, a need that only LGBTQ+ people have to fulfill, invalidating the identities of people who choose not to come out. By assuming straight and cisgender as the default, we only make it harder for queer people to realize and accept their own identities.

Many will argue that cisgender and straight being the default is harmless because the majority of people are, in fact, cisgender and straight—only 5.6 percent of the U.S. adult population openly identifies as LGBTQ+. But being the majority does not have to translate to being the default, as the divide between majority and minority simply conveys certain statistics, whereas the idea of straight and cisgender being the default assumes that it is the norm that everyone should fit into. Additionally, the data only counts people who openly identify as LGBTQ+, erasing the identities of those who aren’t out. We lack understanding of how many of the remaining people who label themselves as straight/cisgender do so due to cisheteronormative conditioning. Straight and cisgender being thought of as the default often leads to feelings of internalized homophobia and transphobia, as it makes it more difficult for people outside the mold to accept themselves in a world that doesn’t treat their identity as normal, contributing to higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ+ people, especially among LGBTQ+ youth. This idea also makes it harder for people to embrace their sexualities and genders without giving themselves a concrete label. Furthering the idea of cisgender and straight as the default only makes it more challenging for LGBTQ+ identity to be normalized in our society.

The dangers of assuming straight and cisgender as the default are further seen in Florida’s recent passing of what has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which bans discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The assumption of cisheteronormative identity as the baseline has normalized exposing kids to heteronormative tropes, whereas we portray homosexuality as the deviant that is too obscene or sexual to expose our kids to. Princes kissing sleeping princesses in fairytales is normalized, but two men kissing on screen isn’t.

We normalize instilling gender norms in children, like the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, whereas discussing transgender or nonbinary identity is not common. However, many kids begin to develop a sense of their gender identity between the ages of three and five, and in a recent study among transgender adults seeking gender-affirming surgery, 73 percent of transgender women and 78 percent of transgender men reported experiencing gender dysphoria by age seven. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults reported questioning their sexual orientation before the age of 10. Preventing kids from learning about LGBTQ+ identity at an early age only makes it harder for them to accept their own identities, which has a severe impact on their mental health. Promoting heterosexuality and cisgender identity as the default only prevents LGBTQ+ youth from thinking of themselves as normal.

I was apprehensive about writing this article, thinking that people would brush it off as just another article by me about being queer (the fifth one), but I realized that the idea that there can be a limit on how many times I talk about being queer before making others uncomfortable only furthers the idea that we live in a society where conversation around queer identity has not been normalized. In order to normalize queer identity, we need to understand that the default should be having no default so that people can realize and accept their sexualities and gender identities on their own terms, rather than having to think of their sexualities or genders as an offshoot of cisheteronormativity. Only then can we create a society where people can feel that their sexualities and gender identities are valid without having to provide explanations of how they “decided” to walk out of the mold of being cis and straight, because that mold would not exist.