“Small” Actions, Big Impacts: Microaggressions

December 9, 2022

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

“Rabbi [Judah HaNasi] says: Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know their reward!”
– Pirkei Avot 2:1

Some kinds of anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and policies are easy to spot. When we hear someone use an LGBTQ+ identity term as a slur, make an insulting comment, or dismiss a person’s identity outright, we can identify what is happening and respond appropriately. When official rules and policies are biased against LGBTQ+ people or are designed as if we don’t exist, we can work for better policies. 

But it can be harder to see or name how some common attitudes, practices, or everyday interactions are rooted in anti-LGBTQ+ ideas and often deeply hurtful to queer people. These attitudes can be widespread and can even be held by people who see themselves as pro-LGBTQ+, as allies, or as embracing and supporting everyone.

The term “microaggressions” was coined in the 1960s by Chester Pierce and later cited and expanded by others such as Dr. Derald Wing Sue and Kevin Nadal as a way to talk about the more subtle or “micro” ways that people show their biases and assumptions about others. It uses the word “aggression” to indicate that these biases are not neutral or simple ignorance and often cause real harm by insulting or belittling people with marginalized identities. The original use of the term, and much of the scholarship about it, is in reference to racial microaggressions. In more recent years, thinkers have described the ways in which microaggressions play out against many historically marginalized communities.

Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.

– Kevin Nadal, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Microaggressions often appear to be a compliment or a joke, but contain a hidden insult about a group of people.

– Dr. Derald Wing Sue

Anti-LGBTQ+ microaggressions often are rooted in heterocentric and cis-centric beliefs that being heterosexual and cisgender is natural or normal, while LGBTQ+ people are at best “special” or “interesting,” or in a more sinister vein, “deviant” or “threatening.” A person may hold these ideas consciously, carry these assumptions subconsciously, or a combination of both. Microaggressions are ways that this type of bias plays out in small everyday interactions. The chart below will offer a few examples of common anti-LGBTQ+ biases that can be expressed or communicated in everyday interactions. 

Microaggressions are often seen as “every day,” “minor,” or “unexceptional.” But many people report these interactions as genuinely damaging to their dignity and safety, and studies have repeatedly shown the traumatic, cumulative impact of microaggressions on marginalized people. Encountering a steady stream of microaggressions is associated with psychological impacts such as depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as with physiological impacts such as headaches, loss of sleep, and increased blood pressure. These impacts are worsened when people are pressured to “laugh it off,” “ignore” them, or are dismissed as “overly sensitive.” 

One helpful metaphor is to imagine mosquito bites: a single mosquito bite is irritating, but not serious. 10 or 20 mosquito bites would disrupt our day or our enjoyment of an activity, and a hundred or more bites would be intolerable. Many historically marginalized people are encountering a steady daily stream of other people’s biases. 

Showing up as an ally means being aware of the concept of microaggressions. If someone shares with you that they have experienced a microaggression, or if you witness one, one of the most important ways to respond is to acknowledge and validate that person’s experience, without pressuring them to minimize or “explain away” what happened. You can listen compassionately, allow for their full range of reactions and emotions, and find out if there are ways that you can intervene. 

Showing up as an ally does not mean needing to be perfect. It does mean being able to listen and learn when we make mistakes. If someone shares with you that something that you have said or done was hurtful, or was a microaggression, you can begin by thanking them for sharing that with you. You can listen to better understand how your words or actions impacted them, and find out if there are actions that you can take to repair the relationship. Ultimately, receiving this kind of feedback is a gift, and is an opportunity to learn and deepen your relationships. 

A Few Examples of Microaggressions and their Impacts

 

Type Examples Impact
Dismissing LGBTQ+ identities as “less real”
  • Referring to identity as a “phase.”
  • Singling out transgender or nonbinary people as “identifying as” their genders, while saying that cisgender people “are” their genders. 
  • Refusing or “forgetting” to use someone’s pronouns.
  • Inquiring about a transgender person’s former name, especially with the implication that a former name is someone’s “real” name. 
Sends the message that LGBTQ+ people are to be seen as “less than,” not worthy of dignity, and not taken seriously. 
 

Treating cisgender and straight identities as normal or normative

 

  • Assuming people are cisgender and straight unless they “come out.”
  • Assuming the genders that people are or want to be partnered with.
  • Programming or events that assume straightness.
 

Sends the message that LGBTQ+ people are “unusual,” denies LGBTQ+ people (particularly youth) the ability to encounter themselves in a vision of the world. 

 

Treating LGBTQ+ identities as deviant, sexualized, or adult in nature. 

 

  • Objecting to discussing LGBTQ+ identities or people in school or youth settings.
  • “Parents should have the right to decide when their children learn about adult topics.”
  • Asking teachers or youth professionals to be “less out” at work.
 

Sends the message that there is something “wrong” or “inappropriate” about LGBTQ+ identities or people. Denies youth a full experience of diversity in the world, denies them vibrant and positive visions of possible futures, denies them language, role models, and impacts their wellbeing and safety. 

 

Treating transgender people’s bodies as objects of curiosity / seeking intimate information about transgender people’s bodies, especially when paired with assumptions about what kinds of bodies make a transition “real” or “complete.”

 

  • Have you had / will you have “the surgery?” / is your transition “complete?”
  • Comments on a transgender person’s appearance, particularly when asking whether they “look like” or “sound like” their gender.
  • Questions about a transgender person’s body, sex life, etc. 
 

These questions are deeply invasive, and tend to be considered wildly off-limits when asked of a cisgender person. Asking them of a transgender person conveys that a transgender person is less deserving of privacy and dignity. Additionally, there is no one way to be transgender, and the implication that transition is only “complete” if a person has had medical procedures is inaccurate and hurtful. 

Even if straight and/or cisgender people are asking seemingly innocent questions out of genuine curiosity, these questions assume that queer folks ought to give answers and explanations about very personal and private matters such as our gender and sexual identities.

 

Exoticising or tokenizing LGBTQ+ people.

 

  • Can you speak on a panel / share “the LGBTQ+ perspective?”
  • “You must have an interesting story!”
  • Asking questions like “how did you know” or “what was it like to come out” when there is not a relationship to frame these questions.
  • Asking LGBTQ+ people to shoulder equity/belonging work – particularly when this work in not compensated and/or not part of the person’s professional role.
  • Soliciting LGBTQ+ participation solely to boost “diversity” without learning what would make such participation desirable.
 

These kinds of questions assume that LGBTQ+ lives and stories are there for the consumption of non-LGBTQ+ audiences. While some of these questions are things that many of us would discuss among close friends, when these questions are asked without that relationship and without mutual vulnerability and trust they become harmful. 

LGBTQ+ people are also often asked to do a disproportionate amount of educating / equity work / etc. While this work may be empowering for some LGBTQ+ people, it should always be compensated, and individuals should not be asked to take on this work solely because of the identities they hold. 

 

Dismissing the experiences and history of marginalization of LGBTQ+ people

 

  • “I don’t care what you do in bed”
  • “I don’t care if you identify as a man, a woman, or a table.”
  • “I don’t care which bathroom you use, just wash your hands.”
  • “We have moved past” anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.
  • “It seems like everything is focused on the LGBTQ+ community these days / the left has gone too far.”
 

Actively erases LGBTQ+ identities and the very real struggles for basic rights, access to safety and services, and dramatic medical, economic, and other disparities impacting the LGBTQ+ community. 

 

Minimizing or dismissing bias or harm reported by LGBTQ+ people.  

 

  • “I’m sure they didn’t mean [an insult] that way?”
  • “You must have misunderstood.”
  • “Stop being so sensitive / aggressive / etc.” 
 

Compounds the hurt caused by the initial incident and damages trust. 

 

Anti-LGBTQ+ bias pops out in so many everyday interactions. These individual moments have a real and negative impact. However, we can avoid, minimize, and interrupt microaggressions and build kind, supportive, and affirming communities. 

  1. Non-LGBTQ+ allies should educate themselves about the common experiences of LGBTQ+ people. By reading, watching, listening to, and consuming media by and featuring LGBTQ+ people, allies can learn more about the LGBTQ+ community without putting individuals on the spot or asking invasive personal questions. 
  2. Non-LGBTQ+ allies should expand authentic and mutual relationships with LGBTQ+ people,  encounter the wide diversity within the LGBTQ+ community, and get to know LGBTQ+ people both through and beyond our genders and sexual orientations. 
  3. People of all identities should pause and think about how a question or statement might be received. If you’re worried your words might be hurtful, don’t say it! By strategically challenging the messages about LGBTQ+ that contribute to these biases, we can help build affirming communities. 

More reading on microaggressions:

https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions

Keshet

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