So...like...but who's the girl? And like...who's the boy in the relationship?
It is staggering how often this question comes up in my conversations with straight people, or at least straight people without any gay friends. I never fully know how to respond. I want to respond in a way that conveys both my disturbance and puzzlement over the question.
My response is usually, "Well...we're both the boy...that's kind of the point...of this whole gay thing." To which I typically get looks of embarrassment and equal confusion.
I feel it's easier for someone who doesn't understand or know anyone in a gay relationship to place these stereotypical gender roles on every relationship. He is bigger, or more masculine, or more dominant...so he must be the man in the relationship. He is more effeminate, or domestic, or submissive...so he must be the woman in the relationship. It's like please stop putting your straight gender normative stereotypes in my life...kthxbye. On a serious note, not even most heterosexual relationships I know fit into those gender normative roles.
Although I hate these gender normaties and the people who place us in them, they do often seep their way into my gay relationships. I find myself trying to fulfill these different roles depending on the role my partner is playing. I need to tone down my masculinity because he has a dominant personality and likes sports, or I need to man it up because he said he doesn't like guys that are "too gay".
"Too gay" is another term I hear thrown around, especially by other members of the gay male community. There is a hierarchy in this community that, just like it's hetero counterpart, celebrates masculinity.
We fight so hard to be accepted for who we are, then change everything to fit into a mold that wasn't even built for us, it's ironic, but like really ironic not ironic like all the shitty things that happened to Alanis Morsette.
I feel like theses roles in the gay community, especially with gay men, also come from the gender roles attached to sexual positions and power. Who's the top, and who's the bottom? Who's the catcher, and who's the pitcher? Who performs the sexual acts normally attributed to women or the acts attributed to men?
I was once asked with my former partner, at a party, "Which one of you is the top and the bottom? I can't figure it out by looking at you!" This is another, highly inappropriate and intrusive question that baffles me. Most straight people would never ask a straight couple this question, so why would you think it's ok to ask a gay couple? I understand the curiosity and the desire to learn about what you don't know, that curiosity is good...but...like Google image gay sex or something, that's how I learned. Well, that and having a "straight" high school classmate use me as his gay experimental doll. Which now I might totally be into, he just caught me at a bad time and about 12 years too early. I digress.
Even as gay men, we place these masculine and feminine identities on sexual positions. If you are a top, or a pitcher for those who prefer baseball analogies, you are considered more masculine in the gay community. There is an unspoken acknowledgment that you take on the more stereotypical masculine roles; opening the car door, paying for dinner, being the big spoon while cuddling. In this unspoken situation the reverse is true for the men who prefer the bottom position, they must be submissive or more effeminate with their partner. They are thought of as less of a man because of their sexual preference.
The stigma of the bottom also goes a little deeper, in my opinion. Yes, there is a joke in there, which I'm choosing to ignore, but now I'm not ignoring it, and babbling on in this run on sentence. There is this shame that stigmatizes men who prefer the bottom position. It's not spoken about often, except maybe in passing jokes, but the feeling runs deep.
As young men we are taught what it means to be a man. What it means to talk like a man. To stand like man. To carry ourselves like a man should. In none of the lessons in manhood are we taught to enjoy being submissive, sexually anyway, to another man. Not that being the bottom is always a submissive role, but the stereotype around it is most definitely.
I struggle with fulfilling, and not wanting to have to fulfill, these gender roles. Sometimes it's just easier to place myself and my boyfriend in these roles to better fit in, in this heterosexual world. Part of me also feels guilty and shameful for sporadically wanting to fit into these roles. Sometimes I like they way they fit, the way they feel. It brings me a comfort and a normality in a situation that I'm daily reminded is not the "normal".
It goes back to my childhood thoughts of wanting to be a girl. I wanted to be a girl, not because I felt out of place in my body or knew I was a girl inside, but because I felt more comfortable in the role I was told that gender played in the world. I was told women were quiet, submissive, and to be taken care of by their strong husbands. Not just by my family and their religious doctrines, but by the roles I saw women playing in the world. I didn't feel I could fit into the gender role I was told I was born into. I didn't fully fit into the gender role I thought I preferred either. I felt like the Goldilocks of identity and my only too options were not "just right."
I found occasional comfort stepping into the more feminine identity throughout most of my life. It was easier to fall into that role for me than it's masculine counterpart. On a rare occasion I would feel very out of place in the feminine role and feel more connected to my masculinity, or what you can consider masculinity for a prepubescent wanna be gymnast.
My first experience of this comfort came at the age of 8 or 9 while playing house with a boy in my grandparents basement, technically we weren't related, but less technically we are cousins. Yes, this took place in West Virginia, and no, my parents aren't siblings who grew up in neighboring double wides.
We were inside while the rest of the kids were outside playing. He suggested we play house. I was ecstatic another boy wanted to play house, but skeptical to how this game would be played with just the two of us. He told me we might not be able to play because we would need someone to play the mom. I eagerly volunteered to play the mother. As our game went on I felt more and more comfortable in my role. I cleaned the house while he was at work, I picked the kids up from school and had dinner ready by the time he got home. Yes, our children were a creepy doll from the 60s who had one eye and 3 strands of hair, and my Asian cabbage patch doll dressed like a male gymnast, and yes, our dinner was invisible lasagna, but we were happy. After putting the cabbage patch kid and one eyed sally to bed we went off to our room, which was a blanket laid down on the cold wet surface of my grandparents unfinished basement.
He informed me that when moms and dads go to bed they sometimes don't wear shirts. I felt a little weird about the situation, but these feelings were quickly overshadowed by butterflies filling up my stomach. We laid in bed with our shirts off. He pulled me in close to him with my head resting on his chest. He held me just like I saw on TV and in the movies. He was a few years older than me, and taller. I felt tiny and protected in his arms. It felt nice. It felt more than nice, it felt perfect. This was a role I could get used to playing.
A minute went by and he had a realization that this game was no longer what he wanted. He said, "This feels weird I would rather play with a girl, I don't like boys like that." My heart sank and all the butterflies flew from my stomach to my throat. What was once a feeling of protection and perfection now became a feeling of embarrassment and shame. How could he not feel what I felt? Why did it matter if I wasn't a girl? I put on my shirt and told myself I would never play that role again.
Still to this day, I like being held and feeling the protection of a man. Does that mean I am falling into a stereotypical gender role? Am I less of a man? The answer, no. I look back at the incredibly strong women in my life, who found comfort being the protector, holding others in their arms. They weren't confined by the role society demanded their gender make them play. They were protectors just like generations of women before them.
The idea that in every relationship, romantic or not, we have to fit into these roles mapped out for us is ridiculous. I challenge you to name any relationship where the roles are set in stone. The roles we play in ever relationship change and grow with the change and growth we experience. We come into this world being taken care of by our parents, or loved ones. The same loved ones we one day will be caretakers for. We play different roles through all the relationships we have. We aren't the same with our boss, as we are with our lover. We aren't the same with our child, as we are with friends.
Our roles in life can't be defined by masculinity or femininity. They can't be boxed into one or the other. They are open, and fluid, and ever changing...just like us.
I don't understand the rules of football, and I'm not able to change a tire on a car. I love live theatre, and know my way around a dance floor. I hate going shopping with girls, and I can't get enough pizza and beer. I love my full beard, and hate house music. I am a multidimensional and complicated gay MAN. I am comfortable with my masculinity and my femininity, and don't believe either define me. I prefer what I prefer sexually, and am comfortable saying that those preferences are really none of your business.
Thank you for reading. Make good choices and be safe with your bodies.