Last night, my husband David and I had the privilege to speak to a class on sex, ethnicity, race, and gender at the School of Public Health for the State University of New York at Downstate (SUNY Downstate). We were invited by the professor of the class who is on the board of the organization where I work.
David and I were there to talk about our story and how we fell in love. The students were there to learn about gay relationships in a setting where they could ask questions without fear. One of the questions we were asked, which we have been asked a lot by small kids, was:
” I understand that you are married, so which one of you is the husband and which one of you is the wife?”
Now it’s easy for a gay person to get offended by this question. David later admitted that he was offended saying, “why would someone even ask that, don’t they understand?” I think about it differently. I read an article recently that quoted RuPaul, a gay icon, who said, “The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, ‘Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?’ That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing.” This student was asking to understand, not to “throw shade” or demonstrate hate.
As I looked at the class, I related that the same question had been asked by my four-year-old nephew who had been the ring bearer in our wedding.
My older brother and his wife were so shocked that he asked it and then tried to apologize and cover it up. I raised my hand to stop them as I hugged my nephew Christopher and explained:
“Uncle Eric and Uncle David are both husbands. We don’t have to have a wife or a mommy in our relationship to be happy as long as we love each other.”
As I relayed this story, I realized that there are probably many reasons why someone would ask this question (or think it but not dare ask it). One of the biggest reasons is that we as gay people are fighting to not be assigned a gender or a role all of the time in our relationships or in life. People see that and are even more confused. They want to put a clear label and see clear boundaries in a relationship.
Society dictates that a marriage must have a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, or one who is nurturing and one who is not. In my own family, my dad works a job outside of the house and brings home the money while my mom who raised four kids does all of the cooking, cleaning, organizing, laundry, sewing, gardening, ironing, shopping, and other household chores. I grew up knowing that in most houses near me men and women followed traditional stereotypical gender roles. That isn’t the case anymore, not even in the small town where I grew up. There are now house-husbands, working wives, and many families where both partners take on working, house-keeping, and child-rearing as they struggle in today’s economy to get ahead.
In LGBTQ organizations, we frequently ask people which pronoun they wish to use and how they want to identify. Unlike earlier times in my life when I heard this question about which of us was the husband or wife, I was reminded that not everyone wants to fit on the traditional gender/role spectrum. Instead of being snarky, I responded (hopefully this helped open minds):
“David and I both identify as men. We are both attracted to other men. We are both husbands in our relationship. Every relationship is different. In some relationships one person of the couple identifies as the wife and the other as the husband. Other relationships have partners who identify as dominant and submissive, masculine and feminine, top and bottom, or male and female. As gay people, we want to be seen as two people who love each other and are in a committed relationship. We would rather one stops assigning a role to us and lets us love each other in a committed way regardless of the role we play in our relationship. I don’t want to ask you whether you or your husband does the cooking, cleans the bathroom, or changes the diapers, but rather how did you meet and who proposed. David and I consider ourselves masculine, but we sometimes can be feminine too. We both cook, we both clean, we both care for each other, do the laundry, iron, and even both are sexually versatile. That’s us, but you can’t apply who we are to all gay relationships.”
That was just one of the interesting questions that we were asked, but it was the one that affected us the most. It was clear that people in the class came from all walks of life and had many different levels of experience with gay people. We were honored to be able to expose them to our life and to try to provide them with experiences and dialogue that will make these students better health care professionals when they graduate so that they can work alongside us to make our community safer and healthier for all individuals regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
This post appeared originally on Eric’s blog, www.brooklynjunk.com.