Gender Roles and Relationships

Catherine DrahotaCatherine Conard Drahota, 28Des Moines, IA

Gender and sex dichotomies are an ingrained aspect of our lives before we even enter the world.  Socialization, according to Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender, begins before birth, and our baby brains continue to soak up contextual cues like dehydrated sponges after we enter the world.  No matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from socialized ideas of gender, or to recognize that this is an incorrect and oppressive binary, we have been so inundated in rigid ideology through the media, how we construct our language, our daily interactions, etc. It goes without saying, then, that our relationships are influenced by socially constructed gender roles, whether we see it or not.

Having the privilege of identifying as a cisgendered female, it’s much easier for me to “pass” under (incorrect) societal expectations of what it means to be a woman. However, being a woman that primarily dates other women opens up myriad of possibilities for rejecting, and challenging, these social constructions.  While I identify as a gay female, I don’t fit in either category typically prescribed to the intersection of these identities: femme or butch.  I guess you could say I am a queer queer, for lack of better, more academic jargon.  Or, more eloquently, a conglomeration of both masculine and feminine traits.  It’s comfortable for me but can be confusing for others and it leads to people often asking if I am gay, but not being surprised if I had said that I was straight.

Being so outspoken and comfortable in my skin and identity does not allow me to form close relationships with people that didn’t think similarly to me, though forming relationships that move beyond platonic friendships can be difficult when you are an aberrant individual.  Often times, the only balance I am able to find is with others that also embody a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

On the outside, my current relationship would paint me as the socially dominant (masculine) one, while my girlfriend is quiet and passive (feminine).  However, our relationship is much more complex than that, with her being highly dominant in certain realms and passive in others.  Of course, the same goes for me.  She wears skirts and laughs at the right times, but can speak every language under the sun, is a gamer, could school you on anything related to literature, and has excellent math skills.  I tend to be a jeans and t-shirt type, covered in tattoos, and prefer crass language, but I enjoy cooking and cleaning, and am good with children.  Though, I am not too shabby at “male” skills such as math or science, either.

Externally, she embodies femininity while I embody both masculinity and femininity.  Internally, we are both odd combinations of the two.  Having been in a straight relationship for five years that focused heavily on gender roles before we met, my girlfriend had to ease into the idea of being herself as opposed to being “the girl” in our relationship.  Though it took time, she now expresses how much easier it is, how she is able to enjoy the relationship, and how we work together as opposed to focusing on participating in certain tasks because we should.  It is also easier for me to not have the expectation of having to mirror her “girl” with a “boy” that isn’t natural to me.  This allows for us to accept complementary aspects of who we are, separately and as a couple, without placing a set gender identification on us or aspects of our relationship.  It moves the focus away from performing societal “shoulds” to being equal participants in relationship “wants.”  Our mobility creates a symbiotic relationship that respects our individuality and autonomy.

Although it’s much harder to follow unbending gender roles when just being in a relationship challenges them, part of trying to cope with being in a same-sex relationship is to normalize the relationship by subscribing to gender roles with just as much, or more, fervor as your straight peers.  This is one explanation of the reliance on butch/femme dichotomies within queer communities.  The acceptance and perpetuation of these roles works as a sort of antidote to the shame felt by deviating from socially acceptable identities, but in reality works to perpetuate stigma, not remove it.  While my girlfriend and I aren’t free from falling into patterns related to our gender and socialization, we have created a relationship that allows for ungendered expression and creates a focus on a true individual, calling into question gender role expectations from both straight and queer communities. However, stereotypes related to gender are highly salient in situations where we are taken out of our comfort zone.  For example, a dinner date full of couples that fit the picture of societal norms may make me more aware of how I look slightly different than most females, especially sitting next to someone that fits externally feminine expectations.  In these cases I am often unsure of how my behavior is perceived and default to a more dominant and masculine expression is typical of me behind closed doors.  Nevermind the frequency with which we are asked about who is the “girl” and who is the “boy” in the relationship.  Yet, considering these two brief examples, it seems as though the most difficult aspect of dealing with gender expectations and roles for my relationship is when it comes to explaining it to others, or trying to avoid having to explain it to others.  Between the two of us, it works perfectly, but to some people in the outside world it seems like something that would clash too greatly to work effectively.

Because of the challenges with facing others’ perceptions of my relationship, I would posit that taking away the expectations of “male” or “female” is a first step to challenging and growing in a partnership, regardless of gender or orientation (or any other social identity!).  Being able to accept our own, and others’, gender identites and expression as more of a spectrum than as either/or can benefit both society and the self, as I have learned through my past and current relationship(s).  I don’t want to be the boy or girl, and neither does my girlfriend.  We would just rather be seen as Catherine and Alex.