When I first came out to my mom, she was devastated.
I had known she was homophobic ever since I could form memories, so I really expected no other reaction. I merely hoped that, by some miracle, she would be accepting and would tell me she loved me, no matter what.
Unfortunately, my hopes did not come to fruition. She and I both went through a whirlwind of emotions the night I came out to her, but I can distinctly remember one of the first things she asked about my relationship with my girlfriend: “So what, you’re the woman and she’s the man?” I remember giving her an incredulous look, wondering what the heck that was supposed to mean.
I knew my mom believed that only a man and a woman belonged together, but I didn’t understand why she would impose these roles on me and my girlfriend when I was clearly dating a girl.
If I wanted to date a man, don’t you think I’d be dating one? I thought to myself in response to her question. Out loud, though, I said nothing.
This wasn’t the first time she had said something of the sort. As a child, I heard my mother claim that femme lesbians who are dating butch lesbians “might as well date a man if they’re going to date someone who looks like a man.” I never questioned what she said or told her why she may be wrong because I feared my defending them would make her suspect I was a lesbian.
Now I know that what was ingrained in my mother’s head was heteronormativity: the promotion or assumption of heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexuality. Heteronormativity explains my mother’s tiring demands that I date, marry and reproduce with a man. And it also explains why she assumed either my girlfriend or I had to be the “man” in our relationship.
Heteronormativity naturalizes heterosexuality so much that any other relationships are seen as mimicries of heterosexual ones. So when my mother questions who the man is, she’s assuming we are using heterosexuality as a blueprint and that my girlfriend and I are each assuming gender roles that heteronormativity prescribes to men and women.
This can be truly frustrating for lesbians because it invalidates our identities. My mother’s claim that lesbians who favor butches “might as well date men” is missing the point. Butch lesbians are no less lesbian for being more masculine-presenting, and femme lesbians are no less lesbian for dating butch lesbians. And not all lesbian relationships are even a butch and femme couple. Lesbian and queer relationships are in no way trying to mimic heterosexual ones. They are special not because they deviate from any “norm” but because they are simply relationships.
To be absolutely clear, I, as a lesbian, want nothing to do with a man in any romantic or sexual way. Neither I nor my girlfriend are the “man” in our relationship.
Since I came out, though, questions such as the one my mom asked regarding the gender roles I and my girlfriend assume in our relationship have continued. These questions have appeared in many forms: Sometimes they are asked by homophobic people, such as my mother, but they are also asked by unwitting friends who may not have had any idea of the homophobic undertones of the question.
For example, “Who wears the pants in the relationship?” While this phrase can be used to describe women holding power in a relationship, it equates being the “boss” in a relationship with masculinity, as, historically, men were the only ones who wore pants. The fixation on “pants” undeniably connotes a heteronormative dynamic between a man and a woman. This may not be as outwardly homophobic as my mother’s question, but it’s still insulting. It assumes that lesbian and gay relationships are trying to mimic that dynamic.
Most view heterosexuality as the “norm,” but one of the reasons it is assumed to be the “normal” sexuality is, for decades, homophobic laws, including sodomy laws, across the United States criminalized any relationship that wasn’t heterosexual and between two cisgender people. So there is nothing inherently natural or normal about heterosexuality; it has simply been institutionalized as the acceptable and legal sexuality.
That is why the continuous assumption of heterosexuality being normal is so harmful. It portrays queer relationships as a mockery, as abnormal, strange or exotic.
Questions about gender roles in my relationships are often soon followed by the question of who “tops” or “bottoms.” As if my relationship is so “exotic” and “obscure” that friends and family would like to know what goes on in my bedroom. Questions such as these are highly invasive when asked by those outside the queer community because we know the question that’s really being asked: Who prescribes to the male role and who prescribes to the female role?
I do not ask my straight friends what goes on in their bedrooms, so what makes it right to ask what’s going on in mine?
Am I bitter? Maybe a little, but I am truly exhausted of my sexuality being seen as “other.” Other than average. Other than normal. I am not other; I am me.