January 1998

This being my first submission, I feel it necessary to detail some of my personal history, as it is directly relevant to some of what I have to say. My name is Nicholas (I prefer to leave it at that to protect not myself, but the people I live with). At 17 years of age, I am a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the intent of double majoring in computer science and mathematics (courses 6.2AP and 18C, for any MIT-wise people out there). I went to Calabasas High School, just outside Los Angeles, and I came out there my senior year. I am bisexual, with a strong preference for my own gender. And I pride myself on being widely thought of as a very unusual, and often frightening person.

Over the past several years, I have begun to notice a common phenomenon that pervades most moral, social, and legal aspects of modern society. I have come to call this supposition the straight assumption -- the presumption that, by default, any given person, including oneself, adheres to a given set of social norms and that any attempt to stray from said norms defines a person as deviant, perverted, or evil. In my own life and development, I have had countless battles with this assumption, both external and internal, as I lived the typical struggles of a closeted queer youth. This assumption, however, does not limit itself to sexuality, and places unnecessary burdens in the minds of the younger generation, which is increasingly turning to media-driven images of 'straightness', in all aspects of the word. Only by open criticism of these assumptions can we allow young minds to shape openly to acknowledge the existence of other modes of thought and alternative lifestyles.

From kindergarten until the fourth grade, I was sent to a very strict Roman Catholic school. I do not mean to flame Christianity as an institution, but I feel obliged to say that that school impacted my mind in a profoundly negative way. I left that school academically advanced, but mentally unable to comprehend the notion that people are, at a low level, inherently different from one another. At that point, I moved to a more upscale, predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where I would remain until I graduated high school. The contrast took me by surprise. Having been raised on one and only one viewpoint -- Orthodox Catholicism -- I was unable to comprehend why all the people around me were not good little Christians. Words such as heathen, I am ashamed to say, made their way into my vocabulary and I became socially outcast -- it would be several years before I would make a true friend. Rather quickly, I realized that this was not working, and that my mentality would need to be seriously altered in the years to come.

The years that followed were tedious at best. Elementary and middle school students are often cruel, usually without realizing so, and being ostracized early on made it difficult for me to enter well-defined social circles. Also, at this point, my sexuality began to emerge in my own mind. This was something new. Until my own mind began to stray from what I considered 'normal' -- in this case, heterosexuality -- I had no reason to question the host of assumptions that had been handed down to me all of my life. This realization, however, was not to be reached easily. I can remember spending hours justifying to myself that I was straight. I went on a few dates. I did a few things that I regret. In short, I expended a massive amount of energy confirming that the desires in the back of my mind were a mere blip, a mistake, something that would iron itself out and go away. Looking back, I notice that I never once questioned why it would be bad to be queer, nor did I wonder why I was so intent on my being straight. I just was straight. There were no questions to be asked.

In high school, that began to change. First, I began to ask myself fundamental religious questions. I decided that I no longer considered myself Christian, and I delved into alternative religions. Reality theory became a hot topic of debate between my friends and me. And eventually, I began to test the limits of the mold I had shaped myself, as a person, into. The hair was the first to go. First, it was blue. Then purple. Then just about every other possible combination. After the initial shock amongst parents, schoolmates, and teachers died down, as most of them realized I was still the same straight-A computer nerd and deserved to be treated as such, I began to realize that I enjoyed things more with my hair a different color. Not because it was shocking or different, but because it was something that I was doing for me, solely because I wanted to.

The hair fiasco marked then end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. I no longer required social approval of my actions -- only my own approval. More importantly, the way I thought about things started to change. I began to realize that I was not heterosexual. I even started to drop vague hints to my close friends to that end. From that point on, I have openly identified as a freak, and have refused to let social ideals contort my own mind. This dramatic change resulted in my coming out senior year. The people at my school were surprisingly supportive -- I got a few cold looks and some teachers did a double take (most of my teachers purported to not know of any other out male students ever at my high school) -- but I found the student body and teaching staff overall treated me much the same as they had before.

I do not mean to be rambling on about the problems I had in my youth, nor do I intend to preach my viewpoints as being of a 'higher' moral order than those of others. Rather, I relate my personal history because I feel that it is indicative of a larger social problem, which I earlier referred to as the 'straight' assumption.

As children, most of us remember being spoon-fed lists of generic morals and precautions; everything from "Look both ways before you cross the street," to "You can't buy happiness." It seems, however, that many of us have forgotten the basic line "Never judge another [hu]man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." Rasism, misogyny, heterosexism, and other countless forms of bigotry are still prevalent in modern society. While, to a large degree, society is rejecting bigotry and reforming old ways, little is being done to educate individuals in this most basic of moral principles. To a large part, I think that this is because very few people realize the connection.

Naturally, people use themselves the evaluate their reality. Hence, people rely on their own thoughts and experiences when judging others. I happen to have a particular dislike for gangster rap. Whenever I hear it played, a set of negative connotations in my mind are immediately attached to whomever I perceive is enjoying it. A similar thing happens whenever I enter into a conversation with a guy (and I do intend this to be specifically male, as I relate to women differently than I do to guys) who purports to be heterosexual; I simply cannot comprehend how that person does not find men sexually attractive. It is just not something that makes sense to me. I am not ashamed of this. It is natural. It is the way the mind operates -- emotional things only make sense if they have been experienced. Rap evokes negative sensations in me, and those sensations are transferred because that is the only way I can evaluate the person playing it. I take special care to acknowledge this and not jump to any conclusions, but I cannot change the way I think. This issue, while relatively easy to deal with on the individual level, is creating an epidemic of social problems.

In recent years, television and other forms of mass-media have taken on a new role -- child care. Dual-income families are often forced to turn to the television as a form of babysitter, and the internet has become a playground for middle and high school aged children. This is another social issue in and of itself; however, it's implications are directly relevant to prejudicial issues. While there are an increasing number of media sources which deal with alternative lifestyles, the mainstream media still reinforces a limited number of viewpoints. Cycling through current movies, there are an alarming number of figures which uphold generic stereotypes. Females are still limited to largely submissive roles. Those movies which manage to places females in leading spots also manage to cast 36-24-36 women sporting black vinyl (not that I have anything against black vinyl). Homosexuality is rarely depicted; and when it is, it is always controversial, almost always shows great pain on the part of the homosexual character, and is never remotely mentioned in anything which targets younger audiences.

The combination of increased youth attraction to media, media-reinforced stereotypes, and human nature produces the entirety of what I call the straight assumption. Children are raised being exposed to very few different viewpoints. This produces, in the mind of the child, a limited number of 'acceptable' modes of living. Anything else then becomes deviant. This gives rise to a new form of prejudice. While more obvious lines, such as gender and color, become greatly reduced. Less obvious lines, such as religion and sexual preference, become greatly strengthened. A person who is raised as I was, thinking that there is one right way of going about things, will eventually find themselves caught in a mode of thinking which precludes other possibilities.

Not only does this prevent people from actualizing themselves, resulting in unnecessary self-torment over issues such as sexual preference, but this also precludes large-scale social movements from being able to bring about reform. As an example, I cite communism. While I will not take a stance on the theory of communism, the way it unfolded itself in our society provides a good model of the straight assumption. The world is largely democratic now. 30 years ago, however, there still were major forces of communism worldwide. While there was a large amount of anticommunist propaganda flying around in this country, that died down heavily in the last 15 or 20 years. Yet, most of today's youth will still, if asked, denounce communism as a form of high evil. This youth, however, was not exposed to the American propaganda from years ago. Anticommunist sentiment, then, must be coming from somewhere. I believe that the source is right in front of our faces -- the media. The film and television media, especially that targeted at the youth, never portrays communism. There is no reason to. However, offhand allusions and references carry marginal power to convey information, and children pick up on that. Hence, they only way they can evaluate communism is based on minimal pieces of information casually picked up. So communism gets a negative association which is difficult to break. The same happens with homosexuality. Children are not offered any other explanation of it, other than casual bigoted remarks made by insecure adults. This, combined with the media image that the default is heterosexuality leads to a massive amount of anti-gay sentiment amongst youth. The only real cause is a simple lack of understanding, a lack of any form of compassion.

I am not going to sit here, on a moral high horse, and proclaim that the media should be censored, nor will I come down harshly on parents who are forced by the order of the rat race to abandon children to a television. To do that would be to shift responsibility onto someone else, and claim that I am not part of this problem. Rather, I would say the opposite is true. I catch myself all the time, making offhand sexist comments hidden under the guise of a joke, or putting down drunken frat-boys. The important step is the effort I make to catch myself. Only through constant self-questioning can we as a society reinforce the image that there are alternatives to everything, and that no one lifestyle is inherently correct. There is no way we can ever reach a perfect state of mutual understanding. Simply put, it is not within the capacity of the human mind.

That is not to say, however, that we should give up hope. Each and every person will always have bigoted assumptions within their own minds. The only solution is self-exposure to other modes of thinking with open arms. I am proud to say that, in my living group here at MIT, I have found such a community. I live in a house with 32 other guys here in Boston, and have found that the attitudes expressed by people here are indicative of those which, if modeled in society as a whole, can help to deal effectively with the aforementioned social epidemics. For example, I have found that if asked, few people in the house will label themselves purely heterosexual. Moreover, most will go to great lengths in a conversation to say they don't think they are totally straight, but rather that they simply have not had the experiences to tell. It is these kind of attitudes, the admission that one does not have adequate experience and cannot understand the other possibility in addition to self-questioning instead of adherence to a stereotyped label (such as simply saying "I'm straight"), which are the essential progressive steps in transforming society. I don't pretend how to know to engender these philosophies on a widespread social level. I do, however, firmly believe that if we all make an effort to embrace self-questioning and openly naive stances, we can reform the shape of society.

If anybody wished to contact me, make comments, laugh at my spelling or grammar (there's a reason I'm at an engineering school), I am reachable as <hanssens@mit.edu>.

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