“So which one of you is the man?”
You might recognize this uber-cringe inquiry as one of the more “progressive” responses to same-sex couples. On the one hand, it says, “hey, I’m totally cool with homosexuality, your love does not make me uncomfortable.” And on the other, it says “everything is fine as long as I can still look at the world through my gender-binary-tinted glasses.”
It’s no simple coincidence that social roles and behaviours continue to be distilled into “masculine” and “feminine,” even when our understanding of gender and sexual identity has been broadened to include everything from homosexual trans men, to agender asexuals, to occasionally femme-presenting persons that use “they/them” pronouns.
And a new study by researchers at Indiana University proves as much. Led by Natasha Quadlin, with a sample size of over 1,000 adults across the USA, the study focused on the division of household- and child-rearing tasks.
The first among its two most important findings was that gender, and not income, determined what kind of role a partner would play in the house. We have long assumed that women who do not have an income (or one that is lower than a male partner’s) are doomed to a life of unpaid care-work and lesser decision-making power in the home. And while this is true for many women, it does not explain why working women/mothers are still expected to perform their household duties – a duality that largely does not apply to working men/fathers.
The second most important finding was that this same labour division more or less applied to same-sex couples as well. The more “feminine” of two partners will be tasked with laundry, cooking and other chores that have traditionally been women’s work, while the more “masculine” among them will handle the power-tools and finances and other stereotypically masculine things.
“[T]hey took the heterosexual norm, where there are certain chores that men are expected to do and certain chores that women are expected to do, and used that same rationalization to determine household responsibilities for same-sex couples…” says Quadlin.
If you remember the Modern Family episode “Mother’s Day,” you’ll remember how American TV’s favourite gay couple were forced to confront this exact rationalization.
“They think of me as a woman!” Says a very distraught Cam.
“We’re just a new type of family, you know? They don’t have the right type of vocabulary for us yet,” offers his partner Mitch.
So when people ask gay or lesbian couples “which one is the man?” it’s not mild-mannered ignorance. It is a reflection of how the gender binary colours everything in the world. Even the professions people take up tend to be determined by gender roles, which has made it unacceptable for men to have care-work roles, and difficult for women in, say, the fields of science, sport or business. In fact, we’ve known for some time now that a double-bind holds women in a professional setting to a standard of femininity, and also punishes them for exhibiting the same behaviour as their male colleagues. And all of this is an effect of the “feminization” or “masculinizarion” of certain kinds of work, to which the study points.
A system of biologically determining a person’s role appears to be heading toward its inevitable death, with some calling for the end of gender itself. But the Indiana University study shows that, in purely practical terms, this will be difficult to fulfill. We’ve only just started understanding the myriad ways in which gender slips and slides over physical bodies. But even if we were to separate gender from the body, there hasn’t been nearly enough effort to separate it from everything outside the body. Very few administrative processes, or public amenities, or even social institutions take cognizance of the fact that gender is fluid. Gender then becomes the superstructure on which our modern societies are built – it determines who gets the bigger share of what, who must do what kind of work, and what infrastructures exist for whom. And until that superstructure is altered, we can all count on being filed into two separate boxes – “masculine” and “feminine.”