Can I ask if you're gay?

My friend and I had a huge fight over whether it's OK to inquire, based on appearance only

Published September 26, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I need some help with dealing with an issue between my (formerly) best friends from college, who are married.  

While I was staying at their house over my birthday weekend, we were discussing a person's photo on Facebook. The question came up, was it appropriate to ask if someone (who was not present) was a lesbian based upon that person's photo?

In my mind, this was an innocent question. It could have been answered in a myriad of ways. But I apparently offended "Andrea." She is a bisexual woman who came out/realized she was bisexual after she was married.

It is her contention that someone's sexual preference isn't "public knowledge" and that it is offensive to even ask someone if they are gay/lesbian/bi/trans, etc. This blew my mind. In my personal experience the more open and affirming one is to a gay person the more open and comfortable that person feels, thus enhancing the conversation/experience.

Our debate slowly went downhill to the point where I was told I was "being an effing d'bag" and she walked out of the room. As I have been on the receiving end of verbal abuse my whole life, I have not spoken to her since, although I did meet up with "Kevin" for a round of beers after a UCLA football game.

The crux of the argument was that "Andrea" somehow had more "legitimate" life experience with gay rights/struggles than I did and thus her opinion was the only correct one. She downplayed my lifetime's worth of experience with gay and lesbian individuals, insinuating that I am not well versed on the issue simply because my uncle and three of my cousins are gay.

So now for the advice: What do I do? This happened at the end of July and the only communication from her was a Facebook post citing the new season of "Sherlock," to which I did not reply. "Kevin" is as active as ever as my friend. But my relationship with "Andrea" had been a wonderful two-way street of understanding what an abusive household could do to a person.

In losing her as a friend, I am losing the one person I always called whenever my life seemed to be sliding downhill. But I am still horrifically offended that she has not attempted a real apology, even if she feels she doesn't truly owe one. I can live with, "Well, we just agree to disagree and that doesn't make either of us d' bags," but that doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

What's my next step? Find new friends to fill the void or go back with my tail between my legs?


Bummed and Confused

Dear Bummed and Confused,

This friendship is important to you. You argued and it got out of hand. It went beyond debate. It became a fight. You hurt each other. Now it's time to make up.

You don't have to go back with your tail between your legs. You can go back with your head held high because you are doing the right thing. You are preserving a valuable friendship. Neither one of you has to be right or wrong about this. The important thing is that you both have strong feelings, and you both are sensitive, and hurtful things got said, and now it's time to mend the friendship.

I would beg of you: Put aside your need for acknowledgment, your desire to be heard, your belief that your position is right, and your need for apology. Let it go. Just make up. Be her friend again. Do whatever it takes.

As to the question of what is proper to ask, or assume, about others: People may be hurt by things that you don't think are that big of a deal. They may be hurt by things that you think they shouldn't be hurt by. But you've got to take people as they are. Otherwise, if you are arguing with a person and you are saying things to that person that that person doesn't like, and you keep doing it because you don't think these things should bother that person, then you are, in essence, denying that person's "personhood." You are proceeding on the premise that that person shouldn't be that way. But she is that way. Thus you can inflict deep hurt. I think this happened in your fight with your friend -- both ways. Each of you hurt the other because you were in essence denying the other's "personhood."

One thing writing this column has taught me is that you really never know. The variety of people is staggering, as is the distance between reality and appearance. So when you presume to know, you run the risk of appearing foolish. Sometimes it is helpful, when writing, to know gender, or nationality, because it makes it easier to imagine that person in context. But even the things we think we "know" about a person, such as "that person is gay" or "that person is bisexual" are really only vague and gross categories, and within them is a dazzling range of personal, psychic, emotional reality.

So I suggest you err on the side of caution, humility and circumspection. That way, you will be less likely to unintentionally hurt someone's feelings. Answers to your questions will emerge naturally in the course of friendship -- if you maintain that friendship long enough to come to deeper understanding!

By Cary Tennis

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