One lesbian’s look at how gays and lesbians turn conventional ideas of gender on their head and confuse straight people in the process.
This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psycholog
Since I came out many years ago, the one question straight people have asked me about my lesbian identity—more than any other—is this: “Is one of you the man, and one of you the woman?” After all these years, my responses have gotten increasingly snarky. Recently, I’ve been tempted to reply, “Well, three days a week I’m the man, three days a week she is, and Sunday is a coin toss.” I know better than to say this out loud because I’m a big proponent of the idea that any question asked sincerely is a valid one. Still, when someone, even someone who knows me well, asks it yet again, I quietly wonder why it’s so hard to understand that we’re both women. Last I checked, that was the definition of “lesbian.”
When I’m feeling less snarky, I take the opportunity to turn the question around a little: “In your mind, what sort of things would constitute someone being a man versus being a woman, aside from obvious body parts?” The answer is typically something vague about one person being particularly dominant, or maybe the other likes to cook. I’ll then ask, “In this post-Oprah world, do these things really define a man or a woman?”
Looking around at my friends and colleagues, I see that no one falls into neat boy/girl categories in the “Leave it to Beaver” sense, thank God. My straight, girly-girl friends are some of the toughest SOBs around, and my best, butch, straight-guy friend subscribes to Vanity Fair. Given this, it surprises the hell out of me that anyone would wonder if either my partner or I is playing out some antiquated gender role—because no one else I know is.
I believe that we—straight and LGBT people—have different ideas about gender, and it’s not because we’re fundamentally different. We’re not, and I can vouch for the fact that once we get domesticated and settle down, our relationships all look about the same: eating dinner together on the sofa, feeding the cat, letting the garbage can fill up as high as possible before one of you gets annoyed and takes it out, peeing with the door open, and deciding that this flawed but wonderful human is the one you want to see at the end of a hard day. In real life, gender roles don’t have much to do with this stuff—we’re all the same.
How we’re different is that LGBT people have had to consciously grapple with the idea of gender in ways that most straight people have not. In short, LGBT people can’t take gender for granted. If you’re a gay man, there was likely a time in your life when, for example, you just understood you couldn’t tell anyone that your interest in baseball players had nothing to do with the actual game. If you’re a lesbian, you might have noticed, back when, that the adults weren’t at all happy to find your Barbie in G.I. Joe drag. If you’re trans, then anything you did to be your authentic self probably got you sent to therapy or grounded.
This is how you learned that you weren’t like other boys or girls. You were confounding expected gender roles just by being honest with yourself. Every LGBT person at some point has had an acute awareness that they were stepping way outside the expected gender boundaries of mainstream culture. And there’s nothing like a little serious rule-breaking to make you hyper-aware of what the rules actually are.
If you’ve never had that experience, and you comfortably fit within the accepted gender norms (nothing wrong with that), then it’s harder to actually see how much our modern life is still completely infused with gender expectations, even if few people actually play those roles with the same commitment as our parents or grandparents. I’ll retract this statement the minute I see a lesbian protagonist in a Disney movie.
There’s a cool upside to the LGBT perspective, though, and it’s a certain freedom that comes with knowing you’ve already violated the biggest gender taboo of all. In my case, it was falling in first-crush lust for another girl when I was in high school. Once my crippling fear of being a social outcast forever and ever passed, I experienced a frisson of dangerous joy, a sense that I could be anyone I wanted to be, and damn all conformity. All right, so I was 18 and these moments aren’t unusual at that age. But still, my personal epiphany was specifically about what kind of woman I was going to be, and she was nothing I’d ever seen in a book or Home Ec. class. What possibility!
For boys and men, I imagine that this awareness might be even more fraught and wonderful at the same time. No one seemed threatened by my tomboy tendencies, but I know from talking with men that to be anything “less” than a man can be a punishable offense. There may be no worse slur against one’s masculinity than “faggot.” I admire whatever chutzpah it takes to reply, “Yeah, and…?”
When you’ve had to look at gender so closely, first to make sure that no one knows you’re different, and then to challenge those limited gender roles head on, you come to understand it in a different way. First of all, you see that gender does matter. For example, if gender were stripped from our lives, we probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to what it means to be straight, gay, trans, whatever. Maybe these categories would disappear, which could be boring.
There is actually a lot to be said for those little gender signifiers that push our attraction buzzers. There’s just something about my partner, Traci, when she gets done up for an evening out—the way her hair frames her face, how her necklace falls tantalizingly low on her décolletage, I could go on—that does it for me.
On the other hand, you see how much gender doesn’t need to be so locked in and constraining for anybody, not just LGBT people. So here’s the part that my straight guy friends don’t always get: As much as I love my gussied-up Traci, I also find her incredibly attractive in full grease-monkey attire, after fixing something in the garage. I’m just not limited to the “girl” archetype to feel all fuzzy and tingly about the woman I love, and that may be because I can approach gender a little more buffet-style than recommended by the culture at large.
If other LGBT folks are at all like me, and I suspect they are, this freedom around gender explains a lot of things we do that may seem utterly mystifying to straight folks: like drag, anything campy, men who use the word “fabulous,” women who play rugby or host daytime talk shows in ties. And I suspect that lots of straight folks understand this much more than I given them credit for. So let’s go back to that persistent question I’m asked, and I’ll answer like this: We’re both women, and we enjoy lots of things that people erroneously believe to be the unique preserve of men, but in fact, they belong to everyone.