Let's Stop Assuming
While interacting with others in the world, many people believe that most people they meet are cis, straight, allosexual, neurotypical, Christian, non-disabled, healthy both physically and mentally, endosex, and monogamous. In the US, there is also the assumption that people are coming from a white, Western perspective or cultural background, and if they aren’t, they should conform to that, because “we’re in America” (eg. the people who still say “speak English” with disdain to immigrants learning the majority language).
First, some definitions, in case the terminology is new: cis means identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth, allosexual means having sexual attraction to others, and endosex means having sex characteristics that fit normative medical or social ideas about male and female bodies.
The truth is, the world is much more varied, beautiful, and expansive than the narrow parameters this default thinking allows, and if we started dismantling our assumptions, we would see the world that is actually in front of us instead of whitewashing it.
Let’s look at some numbers
One in four Americans has some form of disability.
More than half of us have one chronic health condition, and 27% have more than one chronic health condition.
The Williams Institute at UCLA reported in 2019 that 1.7% of the population identifies as asexual, meaning someone who does not feel sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality.
As defined by Amnesty International, intersex “is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural variations that affect genitals, gonads, hormones, chromosomes or reproductive organs. Sometimes these characteristics are visible at birth, sometimes they appear at puberty, and sometimes they are not physically apparent at all.” About 1.7% of the US population is intersex.
Slightly more than 20% of people in the US participate in consensual non-monogamous relationships of various types.
Numbers on neurodivergence are tricky to pin down because the definition of what is a neurodivergence differs, depending on who you ask. But at any time you might encounter someone who is on the autism spectrum, has ADHD, or has a learning disability.
Nearly one in five Americans manage mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The most recent census in 2020 showed that 70% of Americans identify as Christian, while 23% say that they are unaffiliated with any religion. Five percent of Americans identify with a different religion like Judaism, Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Unitarian Universalist, pagan, or other religions.
Information about the percentage of people in the U.S. who are transgender, nonbinary, queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual are notoriously tricky to pin down. Some of this has to do with safety: many LGBTQIA people still deal with discrimination, bodily harm, or even the threat of death if they step out of the closet. Every year the community holds Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor the transgender and gender non-conforming people killed each year, (41 in 2021 and 44 in 2020 in the US, with higher numbers in some other countries). Some people are not comfortable disclosing their identity. The population of various LGBTQIA people varies from state to state as well. As acceptance for queer people grows, younger generations feel more comfortable coming out and claiming their identities. Polls and studies often reflect that more young people identify with a queer or trans identity than older generations. Finally, some people in the older generations are not comfortable with terms like queer, genderfluid, or nonbinary, and may not select them to describe themselves.
That said,12% of people surveyed by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) in 2017 said they identified as LGBTQIA. In that same survey, 20% of 18–34-year-olds claimed that identity. GLAAD also reported that about three percent of the US population is transgender. The term transgender is an umbrella term for many identities, including nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, and agender.
A shift is needed
As you can see, it is time to let old assumptions fall away and allow an openness and curiosity to take its place.
I recognize my privilege as someone who is white as well as cisgender-presenting. My experience is not the same as a Black trans woman or someone who makes multiple trips to the ER in a week because of anaphylaxis. But I am confronted weekly, at least, by people’s assumptions about who I am and what I can do.
Here’s who I am that likely doesn’t fit other people’s assumptions: chronically ill and disabled, queer, nonbinary, someone who manages mental illness, and pagan. I use they/them pronouns.
These are a few of the situations where I’ve encountered people operating on autopilot rather than being open and curious:
Before I got married, when I would mention my fiancee, people would always follow with, “Oh, how does he feel about the wedding location?” or “Are his parents coming into town?” I married a cis woman.
People always assume I use she/her pronouns and will identify me as a woman, even though I am nonbinary.
I can’t tell you the number of doctors who have said, “Well, you’re young and healthy, so there’s probably nothing very wrong with you.” Except they were wrong. I have stage 4 endometriosis, the most serious stage, and I also have a rare disease, mast cell activation syndrome. Both have been varying levels of disabling throughout much of my adult life.
It’s especially fun to combine my multiple marginalized identities in medical settings. For instance, the ER docs who didn’t know much about MCAS and were surprised when I had a reaction to the detergent used on my medical gown. Or, during the same ER trip, the doctor who said, “Your pronouns are they/them, right? I saw that in your chart,” and then proceeded to use “she” when talking to his medical assistant right in front of me.
Another assumption people make: that their “little bit” of perfume, cologne, essential oils, or hair product won’t bother me. Or that the scent of their laundry products “isn’t that strong.” I ask people to be fragrance free around me, but they rarely actually follow my guidance. Or I might ask a doctor’s office, hotel, or Airbnb if they are scent free. Some will say yes, and then I arrive to find that they use Plug-Ins or Febreeze or an essential oil diffuser or a detergent on the gowns or sheets that make me break out in a rash and hives or get a migraine. Traveling has become a Herculean task.
These moments eat away at you bit by bit. That’s why they are called microaggressions. To anyone who doesn’t experience them, they may seem like no big deal (“oh, I didn’t use your pronouns when I was talking to my mom because she’s older and doesn’t really understand it”) but they’re actually a huge deal and when these moments add up, it is exhausting and demoralizing.
So I propose we stop assuming. Those people you think are men and women? Some of them could be nonbinary or agender. The person you see in a wheelchair one minute who stands up and walks the next? They could have multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, or any number of other conditions that make extended ambulation or standing difficult, and so they use a wheelchair to get around more easily. Making snap judgements about people’s pronouns? If you’re meeting someone new, always ask first before assuming. You might even want to check in with people now and again; I just started using they/them pronouns this year.
I’m not saying I’m above all of this; I need to work on it too. When I walk out into the world, I’m going to strive to never assume anyone’s gender or pronouns. I’ll assume that people might be struggling mentally or physically or are on the autism spectrum. If we all make this effort, it could make a huge difference both in representation and in understanding.