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What queer culture can teach everyone about communicating

“Hi. I love you,” I said when I met my friend S on the Mississippi river levee for a walk.

“I love you, too,” they said. There was a pause. We made eye contact.

“I’m happy to see you,” S said. “Me too!” We made distance hugging motions. There was another pause.

This conversation might sound stilted or awkward, but it actually wasn’t. The way S and I negotiated consent around mask-wearing and COVID-safety makes me feel safe. All those pauses serve a purpose, too. They allow us to take each other in and give us time to process subtle shifts in presentation that may have happened since the last time we met. This is how I generally expect to be greeted and treated by other queer people — with curiosity, intentionality, and an eye on consent — and frankly, I think everyone could learn a lot from how queer people communicate.

Consent

“Queer people build consent into their conversations and give choices,” Shawny Sena, a psychotherapist in Minneapolis who works exclusively with queer folks, tells me. Part of the habit of asking for consent comes from the sensitivity developed during the AIDS epidemic, when many queer people established a standard for it. Asking for consent to queer folks in the 90s was a matter of life and death, as it is now. Even younger queers, who weren’t around in the way back, picked up this habit because it’s been passed down through queer culture.

Another reason consent is built into to the way we talk to each other is that, unlike most cis-gendered heterosexual people, we can’t make assumptions about what sex, gender, or relationships mean. “When you don't just fall into heteronormative gender and relationship roles, it's all on the table,” Sena says. In other words, we have learned to talk through all the things that the dominant culture takes for granted — like that “sex” means PIV (penis in vagina) — or that being a “man” means having a penis.

“Queer people have a lot of practice speaking only to their experience, rather than subscribing to ‘that's just how people do it’ lines of logic,” Sena says. If I am going to have sex with another person with a vagina, for example, I can’t assume that they identify as female or want me to think about them or treat them that way. I cannot assume that they want to be penetrated by a phallus-like object. I have to ask for consent about how to touch them and I have to be able to tell them how I want to be touched. Same if they have a penis.

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Look, not all queer people are comfortable or clear when they’re talking about issues of consent. It’s not like having queer sex magically makes you a great negotiator of difficult conversations. But talking about consent is a skill that requires practice. Because issues of consent are, by necessity, built in for many of us because if we want to do pretty basic things — like, say, address each other by name — we often have to have complex conversations basically immediately, so we get a lot of practice at it.

This comfort negotiating has served me well during the pandemic and it has also made it immediately obvious when whoever I’m talking to isn’t used to doing it. I can’t tell you how many pandemic-era distance hangs I’ve tried to negotiate with straight people who got frustrated or offended by my requests for information or clarification. I get it. If you aren’t used to talking about consent, it can feel like an accusation or an inquisition. But it’s not. Consent negotiation is a way of proactively demonstrating mutual care.

Compassion

Affection is another thing that is built into queer culture. The first thing I say to friends in greeting is, “I love you,” because I know what it’s like to feel unloved. Most other queer folx have also experienced exclusion and isolation, often from the people who they needed care from the most — their families of origin. I can never know the full reality of another person’s experience and I don’t like to make assumptions, but it feels especially important to navigate queer spaces with trauma sensitivity.

When I ask someone I don’t know well to spend time with me, I generally try to gauge their comfort with different kinds of surroundings instead of proposing a meeting place from the jump. As a gender non-conforming person, there are plenty of places that I’m not comfortable, and as a person with anxiety, there are some group environments that I find triggering.

“Queer peoples’ lived experiences give them with a distinct vantage point that allows, and sometimes, even obliges them to communicate in trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed ways that are not immediately accessible and not always understandable to people who are not queer,” says Renato Liboro, a Las Vegas-based psychotherapist and professor of psychology at University of Nevada.

There are a bunch of places where I have been harassed or low-key gay bashed or just ogled and I don’t really want to go to those places, and I assume that there might be places like that for other people, too. What I feel like cis-het people sometimes don’t understand is that feeling like you have the right to go anywhere is a kind of entitlement that not everyone has.

Awareness of privilege

The willingness to acknowledge privilege is another thing I feel like everyone could learn from (some) queer people. “People who are not queer could learn to communicate in ways that are consistently cognizant, mindful, and respectful of identities, contexts, and experiences of people who are from a distinct minority,” says Liboro. Because many of us have experienced some degree of marginalization, he says, queer people are often aware of the kinds of privilege we do hold — like whiteness or money or beauty.

Again, being queer does not immediately or definitively bestow a person with a Buddha-like social consciousness; there are plenty of queer racists, misogynists, and classists out there. But navigating the world as a queer person more often than not means having an awareness of the kinds of privilege you do and don’t have.

Let me be clear: A queer white person does not have any special or innate insight into the plight of Black or brown people — not at all. Awareness of privilege is just the starting line for any kind of progressive thinking, and queer folks may not be leaps and bounds ahead of their cis-het peers, but they also may have a lived experience of being excluded and discriminated against that motivates them to work for social justice on all fronts.

I think we’re all trying to evolve right now, and that requires an acceptance of change that queer people are perhaps uniquely acclimated to. Queer people, by dint of not being part of the dominant culture, have all undergone some kind of identity shift. I, for example, have shifted my name and gender pronouns four times in the past three years.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, being a person in an ever-evolving identity has made me more willing to change — and more excited about it, and I think that comes through in all my conversations. Most of the queer people I know don’t ask each other, “what are your pronouns?” They ask,” what pronouns do you use?” This subtle difference in phrasing implies that gender is something you are doing and that it might change at any time.

There’s a real sense of optimism in the fact that queer people are, in every conversation, reserving the right and extending an invitation for personal and collective evolution. “There is so much freedom when you embrace that your life can look however you want it to,” says Sena. And, I think, the freedom that queer people are claiming in conversation isn’t just our own. Conversation, after all, is inherently social, and when I make space for my own freedom to change and to be, I am also trying to make space for you and everyone else, too. So these small acts of speech may seem awkward from the outside, but from where I sit, they feel like hope.