Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Fairness and Equality and the Gay and Lesbian Couple

What is fairness really about – sharing the chores or equal rights?

As the sands of time have shifted down the hourglass and the government has openly embraced the shifting status of same-sex relationships, it can be interesting to explore whether equal rights will also play out in equality in relationship responsibilities for these couples.

A while back, a colleague and I completed a study addressing long-term, same-sex relationships. We invited participants to share their perspectives on a host of issues including their perceptions on how their relationships were similar to, or different from, heterosexual relationships. As expected, both men and women felt that there were some drawbacks and some definite perks to be enjoyed by gay and lesbian partners that straight folks just didn’t have available.

The lack of legal sanctions in their geographic locations were the most frequently mentioned negative difference for couples. The list of inequalities included marriage, health insurance sharing, hospital next-of-kin rights, pensions, etc. However, many couples were easily able to share rich and satisfying comments about how they perceived their relationships to be even more rewarding than those of straight couples.

For instance, same-sex couples enjoyed their freedom to “make up the relationship rules” as they went along in life. Neither partner is culturally “assigned” to take out the trash, mow the lawn, or prepare the meals. Some individuals take a lot of pride in this freedom to be the architects of their household’s divisions of labors under no culturally imposed expectations. For some couples, they believed that the “butch-femme dynamic” was present in their relationships, but they reveled in the freedom that the “butch of the house” could choose to wear the pearls or pour the wine.

Playing with the gender stereotypes can provide amusement for some couples, while other couples are adamantly opposed to engaging in any behaviors that give a hint of playing into the cultural role of masculine and feminine. As one woman shared, ““[my current] relationship is more focused on equality. There is no default gender role stereotype that we each fall into. We are always in a process of negotiating and renegotiating this.” The desire to negotiate the “rules of engagement” or anatomy of a relationship can be a powerful attraction for many individuals who have felt that society already placed too many expectations on them based solely on gender, age, skin color, or whatever.

Equality in same-sex relationships was also described as being present in their levels of communication beyond conversations. Both women and men felt an unspoken, ineffable connection to their same gender partner and believed that this was borne out of their similar genders – it was described by one man as he and his partner “knowing how each other is wired.”

Perhaps when we move from exploring how equality is playing out between the members of a same-sex relationship to the hope for equality on a grander scale, we may be poignantly reminded that what is most different between her relationship and that of any her heterosexual friends is “that we have to explain it at all!”

As the political and legislative arenas have grown more responsive, though slowly, to the needs of our gay and lesbian citizens, it is clear that one person’s comment is slowly becoming more and more true… “We live in a middle class neighborhood, both have college degrees, pay taxes, have a child, my partner served in the military during war, we both work full time, drive SUV's. We are the epitome of mainstream society.” No clue and no need to know who is making dinner at their house or if the veteran wears the Gucci loafers or the combat boots in this family. What matters is that equality runs much more broadly than gender roles, it speaks to the legitimacy and acknowledgement of a commitment between two people. Fair play is about equality and respect and honoring commitment – it is more than time for us to offer this to every couple that proclaims their love.

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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