But How Do You Know That You're Gay?

On the invisible norm of heterosexuality.
Publish date:
Social count:
On the invisible norm of heterosexuality.
Lesbian flags at Nottingham Pride 2010. (Photo: Matt Buck/Flickr)

Lesbian flags at Nottingham Pride 2010. (Photo: Matt Buck/Flickr)

In 2009, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote in the New York Times that youth were coming out as gay, bisexual, and lesbian at increasingly early ages. Coming out in middle school, though, often prompted parents to ask the classic question: “But how do you know you’re gay?”

The equally classic response to this question is, “Well, how do you know you’re not?” The response is meant to bring questioners’ attention to the invisible norm: heterosexuality. It’s a sexual orientation, too, and if a person must somehow determine that they are gay, then the same must be true of heterosexuality.

Of course, most heterosexuals simply respond: “I always knew.” At which point the gay or bisexual person just nods smugly. It’s very effective.

In any case, I was reminded of this when I came across a BuzzFeed collection of “painfully funny secrets” children think they’re hiding from their parents. A few of them were romantic or sexual secrets kept by four-, five- and six-year-olds.




I’m not saying that any of these secrets actually mean anything about these children’s sexual orientation, but they might. The first crush I can remember was in 2nd grade. His name was Brian and we cleaned up the teacher’s classroom after school in exchange for stickers. I never looked directly at him, nor him at me, but he was soooooo cuuuuuuuute!

Anyway, it’s interesting to me that parents have a difficult time believing that their children might have a pretty good idea who they like. The signs of their sexual and romantic interests start early. Then again, if parents are looking for signs that their children develop crushes on the other sex, it’s likely easier for them to see. The invisibility of heterosexuality as a sexual orientation can make it, paradoxically, impossible to miss. While the non-normativeness of homo- and bisexuality can make these orientations invisible.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Seeing Children’s Desire: Visibility and Sexual Orientation.”