A typical heterosexual relationship was once one where the man played the role of breadwinner while the woman kept the home. Today, the roles that men and women assume in relationships are different from when this conservative structure was the rule. The Diversity Training Group reports that today, 95% of family financial decisions are made by women; a 2010 Pew poll shows that 72% of women and men ages 18–29 agreed that the best marriage is one in which husband and wife both work and take care of the house.
Some people resonate with traditional gender roles in relationships. “Sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor,” actress Kirsten Dunst told Harper’s Bazaar UK. “You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work… staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking — it’s a valuable thing.” While I can certainly see how some may take issue with this viewpoint, the societal breaking-down of traditional roles shouldn’t be meant to vilify those who remain committed to them. The erosion of gender roles should foster freedom of choice as to how one conducts oneself. After all, who’s to say what someone else should consider valuable?
Traditional gender roles between men and women in relationships are so ingrained in our psyches after thousands of years that often they are subconsciously taken into account, surreptitiously influencing how people conduct themselves in relationships.
But enough about straight people.
What’s infinitely more interesting here is that these gender roles are evident even in men who date men, and have an impact on the way gay men relate to one another in romantic relationships. “The antipathy to marriage by a same-sex couple is deeply embedded in a history of gender roles and sex stereotypes,” Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chai Feldblum wrote in The New York Times. As a result, the gay community is hyperaware of traditional gender roles and the bearing that they have on public recognition of their own sexuality. But what happens if and when these heteronormative ideals are applied to gay men’s relationships?
The breaking of the mold from heteronormative gender roles is both a reprieve and a point of contrition for gay male couples. On one hand, not having those boundaries within which to behave definitely offers its own brand of freedom; there is no “I should/I shouldn’t be acting this way” because there are no rules set in proverbial stone for couples of the same sex. Neither man is expected to go up to the other in a crowded bar, just as neither is expected to pay for dinner, support the household, pay the bills, or stay at home with the kids. It’s a totally amorphous landscape in which couples can create their own traditions. I guess the reason some folks call gay marriage “non-traditional” is because our traditions are different from or newer than theirs.
The caveat: because there are no preconceived notions about behavioral roles in same-sex couples, sometimes parsing out the dynamic between two people can be difficult. Some have asked me “who’s the woman in the relationship?” and I remain dumbfounded. I mean, the objective answer would have to be neither myself nor my boyfriend — that’s sort of a given in a relationship between men, no?
What dictates the “roles” that gay men play in relationships, and how does our behavior align with, or diverge from traditionally heteronormative gender roles? It’s true that neither is expected to do anything; so then the question becomes: are both men expected to do everything? What happens in a situation where two people in a relationship have both been groomed by society to play the same role?
When it comes to gender norms in this day and age, the lines become so blurred that we miss the forest for the trees. I propose that same-sex couples neither adopt nor appropriate any gender roles. Instead of deciding how to act based on precedence, let’s throw all preconceived ideas out of the window and totally reject the “should” in our relationships in favor of the innate desire to provide for one another.
In the interest of optimism, I believe that at the core of all successful relationships, irrespective of sex and sexual orientation, lies give and take. It’s a game of Tug-of-War wherein the relationship works best when the knot tied in the middle of the rope remains steadfast at the center line and nobody is keeping score.
On Valentine’s Day, I brought my boyfriend a dozen red roses to his office, but he took care of the check at dinner. Neither of us were performing or posturing out of a sense of obligation, but because of some instinctive need to make each other feel special. It’s so much more gratifying to do things for your partner because one wants to as opposed to because one feels impelled to. Who knows? Perhaps a couple’s idea of taking care of each other happens to be fall in line with with those aforementioned traditional gender roles, and that’s okay.
Can’t we all just take care of each other? Instead of worrying about who’s paying for this or that, opening doors, pulling out chairs, and laying jackets over puddles, celebrate instead what your relationship should and can be: one of equals, the purpose of which is to support and protect one another… whether financially, emotionally, or spiritually.
That being said, it’s always nice to treat your boyfriend to dinner.