Happy Pride!! This year I’d like to honor the societal-level, collective gender-role-busting work being done by gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, transgender, genderqueer,  intersex, no gender, and androgynous folks. There are so many examples from other cultures and times in which gender was non-binary and sexuality was mostly regarded as fluid. However, in the United States puritanical, colonial sensibilities have cultivated a unique, especially rigid brand of gender norms. Those of us who have been outside the norms in one way or another get treated like weirdos at best, murdered at worst, while the norms are upheld. Yet, what many of us can see, and what research into relationship success now shows (see S.M. Johnson, 2003) is that gender roles are really harmful in relationships. I want to call attention to some of the ways that rigid gender roles negatively impact romantic partnership (even those of queers!), which I briefly mentioned in a recent post (here!). Please watch these two videos before you go on (hers and his). I’ll be referring to them throughout this blog. Her name is Erin. Let’s call him Troy. After you watch them, before you continue reading, take a moment to imagine them as a couple. What would draw them together? What would they fight over? What would their relationship feel like for each of them? 

I’d like to begin by sharing a bit more about myself and how I have inhabited and observed gender roles in my own life. This claiming of location feels particularly important whenever discussing topics of politics and identity. From an early age it was clear to me that I did not fit in gender-wise. Yet, I think, despite the hardship this caused, some part of me has always felt grateful for not really having the option of conformity. Sure, I tried for a couple of years to wear pink and perm my hair and wear make-up. But, it was just never ok, never who I was, and I gave up quickly. When I saw my other friends keep up the make-up and the hair and the girliness, I was puzzled and sad. They did not seem happy about it. They hated the make up for the most part and it aggravated their acne. They were always cold because even in winter they were supposed to wear skirts and skimpy tops. Their feet always hurt because the shoes they wore were fucking torture devices. They never understood the boys. It was part of the system. Even when I could easily understand the boys, they seemed baffled, almost intentionally so.

I was also good friends with boys in high school. They drank too much and hid deep depressions because they were sensitive, gentle souls daunted by the task of “being a man.” Three out of the four boys I was the closest to in high school joined the military afterward. This was in part because they were poor, but also because I think they knew some stigmatized “defect” in their upbringing (single moms, alcoholic parents, fathers who struggled with depression) had not quite made them “man enough.”  In truth, that is why we were friends. I appreciated their sensitivity, their emotional vulnerability. They were all musicians. Yet, they felt the need to go seek the socialization process that would lead them to greater emotional callousness and more aggression. They succeeded, and we are not friends anymore. Not because they joined the military, but because after they joined the club of gender normality they buried their true selves in false ones. They parts of them I loved went underground. Mostly, what I have always seen is that gender is not an us-against-them situation of gender nonconformists vs. conformists, but that we are all in the same boat being wounded by a really pervasive bad idea/big lie. 

Many of my cisgender and heterosexual allies, friends and colleagues are slow to see that dismantling the gender binary is also about reducing their suffering. As they are the largest part of the population, their suffering is vast and constant. It is my hope that elucidating the struggle of gender and sexuality majority folks might not only reduce their suffering, but mobilize more of them to deconstruct gender. I truly believe this will do more to save trans lives than creating trans awareness or tolerance as though it exists as a separate thing. In the above videos we see that performance of the gender binary harms men and women, in contrasting directions – women must demure and be receptive to aggression, men must hone aggression and callous-over their feelings. Though I will be speaking mostly of the relational conflicts between heterosexuals who are gender-conforming, I want to claim also my experience that anywhere polarized gender dynamics come in to a relationship they create the same cliché patterns. Each repetition is an opportunity to find new ways of being, to sit in awareness without action or join in the banal dance of dying tropes. I will parse out these options in an example later. This can occur in relationships of any orientation and regardless of whether or not the people in relationship are cis, trans or non-binary. 

For example an ex of mine and I fell into a dynamic in which I was the sole financial support in the relationship. We quickly descended into 1950’s-hetero-style enactments around how much time I spent at home or at work, how burdened I felt by having to work so much, and whether or not my young employees were flirting with me or attracted to me, or I was attracted to them. I was humbled to find myself living in such an archetypal enactment. I felt the enormity of the divide between the archetypal masculine and feminine in that relationship and have sought to balance those in myself and in the world since. For me there is a spiritual (or primal/instinctual for you atheist folks out there) dimension to the struggle between the archetypal masculine and the archetypal feminine. I believe this struggle can’t be “won” by either side, as much as they need each other.  The only way to win the “war of the sexes” is simply to end it. 

As a therapist, if Erin and Troy (remember them..from the videos above) walked into my office for couple therapy I would feel daunted by the work ahead of us, and a lot of it would be translating across their gender divide. I imagine his homosexual leanings would be very unlikely to surface. They would more likely manifest in sabotage of the relationship or the therapy to deflect having to “come out.” He would be a pretty high risk for perpetrating domestic violence and domestic sexual assault. Psychodynamically speaking, he is likely to harbor conscious or unconscious hate toward women for being what he can’t, and also because he has been asked to hate the feminine within himself. 

I imagine Erin both delighting in and hating his exaggerated masculinity, the way all my friends felt about their boyfriends in high school. So many women seem drawn to this bad boy type, because this is after all the pinnacle of our modernly-construed masculinity, and therefore a status trophy at the biological and sociological levels. Yet, in practice this is a terrible man with whom to build a relationship. Troy has divorced himself from his authentic sexuality and emotionality. He is self-soothing this deep wound with alcohol and violence. Erin will not be able to relate to him. She has, in fact, been conditioned not to. If she had any violent or aggressive impulses as a child, she was made to hide them and suppress them into passive aggression. She may cheat, lie or engage in other risky, secret behaviors that restore the power balance covertly. She may have somatic symptoms that result from her suppressed/disavowed trauma and rage and retreat to a dark bedroom to hide from his callousness, hoping (though probably unconsciously) sickness will incur more kindness than he is usually capable of. 

Let’s look at how they might begin the work of saving their relationship by dismantling gender roles. First steps are hard and perhaps slow. So the first, first step is to set the twin intentions of earnestly seeking change and holding self-compassion. You don’t have to be perfect at either, but you can’t let yourself off the hook or annihilate yourself over failures if you want to get anywhere. If violence has started in this relationship, I would strongly encourage the couple to live separately during at least the first part of our work together. 

I would try to help Erin and Troy to learn to listen to each other, to reflect to them how they are missing each other, blah, blah, blah therapy basics. But, throughout whatever content we were discussing, my desire would be to inquire after Troy’s vulnerability and Erin’s feelings of aggression, as these seem to be what this couple has most out of balance. For the record there are just tons of different gender binary trope-traps to fall in - the Sexual Pursuer/Distancer, the Intellectual Masculine/The Emotional Feminine, etc.. Erin and Troy are likely to have some version of the Girl Next Door meets Bad Boy story. He was super hot to her even though she knew he was all wrong for her. He showed her a tiny flash of interest and maybe even a spark of his repressed tenderness at first. Now she hates her life with him and expects him to leave his wild life behind. (again, I have so seen this same shit in all types of gay relationships). In this stereotype the emphasis is on aggression. Our Girl Next Door, Erin has none; her Bad Boy Troy is literally injecting himself with it. 

Of the three options I offered above for meeting corrosive gender roles finding new ways of being, to sit in awareness without action or join in the banal dance of dying tropes, the one I recommend folks start with is to sit in awareness without action. This would not be my approach with abusive behavior, but I am going to focus on non-abusive behavior for now. Just try to notice when you are doing the behavior that your therapist or partner points out to you as inappropriate. For example, Troy is aware at some level of his attraction to other men. He knows he is performing a cliché’. I would want him to get really curious about how it felt to perform that identity. To draw out more details about this, to add mindfulness, is to increase his awareness to a more immediate kind of experiencing of himself. When he comes home and refuses to talk to Erin, sits in a chair and drinks 12 beers and she starts crying. What is it they are enacting? What does it feel like to each of them? Don’t fight it first, just notice. Whatever these answers are they will likely lead to Troy’s vulnerability and Erin’s repressed rage. 

Along the way we will encounter obstacles, some of them so deeply ingrained that they tie to nonverbal states. Men in therapy (and also some trans women, non-binary folx and trans men) for example, often encounter a hard feeling or numbness that feels impenetrable when they are trying to find their exiled emotions. Encountering this again and again can be frustrating and exhausting. Sometimes the exasperation at the process is what leads to the first flow of tears. But, that is hard work, especially in a society that condones the opposite. Women (or other members of complex identities with female socialization or hormones) may struggle to find their voice, to speak up. Speaking to conflict/honoring one’s aggression as a woman can feel like pushing the words through concrete to get them out of your mouth at times. Often early attempts at things we haven’t done before are infantile, because that’s when we stopped doing them. 

Once the members of the couple have been able to find more wholeness and balance as individuals, reclaiming their disavowed parts, the white-hot electric charge of the old issues will dissipate and they will find there are novel options they have over-looked in the past. Like Troy can just tell Erin he feels attracted to guys sometimes and get it over with in this case. Yet, in some situations maybe the masculine could just find the courage to be vulnerable about the thing that happened at work, or the thing she did to hurt him instead of stewing in beer all night. If some guys just knew how to communicate their feelings, they would. And they’d be different people. But we not only don’t teach this, we discourage it and punish it in little boys. 

And yes, this is all archaic. And yes, many people of all genders and sexualities have done a lot of this work for decades now. This is not new. I like so many of my friends and colleagues would like to have believed we were past talking about this. But Queer Theory, and waves of Feminism, and David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, Marsha P. Johnson, Grace Jones and Audre Lorde and we are still here talking about this gender role crap and seeing it come up in our relationships and our lover’s attitudes. I don’t have to like it, but I have to face it, as a queer and as a therapist, as someone who cares about this world. I believe it is because of the progress we have made and the radical deconstruction of our gender constructs that has been taking place over the last 50 years, that the fundamentalist forces of opposition have become so much louder, appearing as caricatures of the stereotypes, like Trump and his goons. But this only makes the cliché’s appear in brighter relief, collectively this works just as raising awareness within the self brings our own flaws to the fore. Now is the time to call attention to the work we have done and call more people into it. 

“But wait, Alice, if queers have gender roles in their relationships too, then why should I be thanking them!?” Fair question. I do believe that because the queer experience starts out with a position outside the norms of gender, we also do develop the awareness of gender roles and desire to question them earlier. Though there are many queer folks hopelessly inured in archaic and abusive gender clichés, I believe there is more often a pre-disposition to question these. This is work we also do implicitly, with our lives and bodies even if it isn’t at a conscious level. Every dyke mechanic, plumber, trucker or soldier has had to negotiate being excluded, being one of the guys, and being a woman with all of the social expectations implied. Even those who just abandon female tropes for male tropes, are confronted everyday by what her identity brings up for other people and how much she causes them to question and be aware of. Even in ignorance of the stereotype they are enacting, a queer person can raise gender/sexuality awareness just by being. In other words, we have been your scapegoats and outcasts, whether we wanted to be or not. That is why I honor and celebrate us queers this year and think you should too. All along, as gay marriage was being contended in state and national courts here in the U.S. and the story was being pitched that gay marriage would not change the institution, I carried this internal objection. I believe queering marriage and dismantling gender absolutely will change things. I hope that it will. I hope we can join in this work together of breaking down the walls that keep us apart. Those walls cause so much pain between all of us, even those on the same side.