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On the Presumption of Heterosexuality

Jason Beck
United States
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love heteronormative privilege

It is safe to say that most (if not all) cultures around the world (and especially in the "West") operate under a "presumption of heterosexuality". That is to say, heterosexuality is the "default", it is the assumed "setting", it is "normal".

This is, to an extent, entirely understandable, completely explicable. The most recent (reliable) studies place the number of queers in the general populace at around 9-11%, a distinct minority. The visibility of this minority is variable; in extraordinarily hostile climates like Uganda or Iran, visibility will be inevitably lower than it will be in places like (forgive the stereotype) San Francisco or New York. This is further complicated by the fact that the bisexual category in that 9-11% has the ability to "pass for straight", as it were; that is, a man-woman couple would be assumed (generally) to be heterosexual, even if one or both of them identified as bisexual.

So, there is a presumption of heterosexuality: it is assumed by society writ large that you are heterosexual unless you indicate otherwise. The onus falls on the queer individual to self-identify. This presumption (if proof of it is really needed) is indicated by the fact that queers have to come out of the closet. Since everyone is assumed to be heterosexual, "Johnny" never needs to go to his parents and say, "Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you: I like girls."

“So what?" you might say. "What does it matter? Heterosexuality is the norm because it’s the norm for 90% of the population. And what does this have to do with board games, anyway?"

Well, it may be the most prevalent type of sexual orientation, but that doesn’t mean it is "normal", per se. It’s not normal for me, it isn’t normal for other queers. Your normal is not my normal. [Side note: I am wholly uninterested in debating the "morality of homosexuality". You are free to do so in places like the RSP forum, but the purpose of this blog is not to set out to defend a certain position so much as it is to explore the intersection of this one thing- being a homo- with this other thing, our shared, common hobby, board games.]

So, that is that. But is this presumption of heterosexuality actually a problem? Does it matter?

Well, sure. Now there are "real world" examples of why this presumption might be problematic (quite a few of them, really), but since the purpose here is gays and games, I’ll move on to that. For many games, this is a complete non-issue. Does this presumption come into play in abstract games like Acquire or Diplomacy? Well, no, not really (other things, absolutely). Bohnanza? Fluxx?

Again, not really. It’s safe to say that this kind of issue isn’t going to be prevalent (or even present) in a game that is abstracted away from the underlying humanity. Do they deal with human issues? Sure. Do they deal with people? Not so much.

However, the board gaming field is not solely populated by the abstract; there are plenty of games where there is narrative; where there is humanity; where there is personality. It is in these games that the presumption is the default.

I shall take an example to illustrate my point: Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. Great game. Big Fan. Veritably dripping with theme. Awesome! It’s also a great example of the presumption of heterosexuality. In the base game, the card "This could be our last night on earth" is used to prevent a male and female character in the same square from taking their respective turns (ahem). In the Growing Hunger expansion, the "Prom Queen" character grants a bonus to male characters in the same square.

So what’s the big deal? Why does it matter?

The issue is (partially/largely/mostly/completely?) one of accessibility. It’s much more difficult to relate to a character/person if you’re completely removed from them in terms of culture, society, experience. Movies are filmed from the perspective of the "heroes", not the villains, because how can we relate to Darth Vader? Luke and Leia are much more accessible.

The same thing is true with games, and because of the presumption of heterosexuality, queer characters are few and far between. Why does Johnny, the football player, have to be in a relationship with Sally, the highschool sweetheart, and not Billy, the track star? Again, because heterosexuality is the default.

I’m not trying to assert that all games must include a token gay to soothe the sensibilities of the game-playing-‘mos out there. Definitely not! But what would be helpful the thoughtful creation of a character who happens to be gay, because, hey, we’re gamers too.
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