When the rules don’t apply to you, you get to make up your own.
I want an ungendered marriage.
Although I am a straight woman and by all odds I will marry a straight man, I want a marriage where those labels are irrelevant. I want a partnership so devoid of gendered assumptions that if you wrote out a pronoun-less description of it, a stranger couldn’t tell who is the husband and who is the wife.
I think I know how to do it, too: Look to the gays.
“I really think that not having those gendered roles has helped us be more open and honest about what we want our lives to look like, and how we want them to play out.” I’m researching this article with half a dozen Google chat windows open on my screen, picking the brains of LGBTQ friends. That was my friend Sean, who recently got engaged to his partner in Illinois where his impending marriage isn’t even legal yet. He continues, “We are forced to discuss our values and regularly assess what is most important to us. We make a decision as a unit instead of a decision that’s been predetermined by this arbitrary gendered society.”
This sentiment is echoed over and over again by gay friends—without gendered assumptions about who does what, the only way to decide anything is to explore the issue together and come to a mutually satisfying agreement. Whether it’s the division of housework, who pays for stuff, childcare responsibilities, or career priorities, when I ask, “How do you decide…?” the answer is the same: “We talk about it!”
Man, that sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
There’s no reason straight couples can’t operate under the same principle. The only thing stopping us is the boatload of gendered baggage that we inherit from our parents and absorb from the gender-obsessed media we love to consume. When we look at our own straight relationships, it can be difficult to tell whether we’re doing something because it makes sense for us or because it’s what we think is expected. In her piece a few months ago, Kelly Siegel wrote about her complicated feelings over who does the laundry:
“And sometimes I’m honestly not sure if I hate doing laundry, or if I just hate the idea that a wife should do her husband’s laundry, because that’s how it was in my home growing up and in my grandparents’ homes when my parents were growing up.”
Kelly is right: If we model ourselves on our parents, who to some degree modeled themselves on their parents, we’re liable to find ourselves in a bit of a Russian nesting doll conundrum. The biggest dolls, the way-back-in-the-day ancestors, lived in eras where gendered assumptions ruled the world. Women couldn’t own property, “marital rape” was a hilarious joke, parenting for men meant providing a paycheck, and wives suffered in silence from the problem that has no name.
We’ve rectified the most egregious injustices, thank God, but subtler forms of inequality persist. We know that even in households where both partners work full-time, women do more of the housework and caretaking. We know that fatherhood is still legally and socially relegated to second-class parenting. We know that men still endure unfair pressure to be the provider and women still harbor unfair guilt over the ongoing pursuit of “having it all.”
Many of us millennials also have parents who worked really hard to model an equal partnership and throw off the most antiquated and sexist relics they witnessed. But reacting viscerally against gendered stereotypes is just as unproductive as conforming to them. If it makes sense for me to do the laundry, refusing on the grounds that I don’t want to follow in sexist footsteps is an impractical way to rebel against the patriarchy. Whether we blindly conform to gendered assumptions or stubbornly insist on subverting every single one for the sake of it, we’re letting the status quo determine our behavior rather than finding our own solutions to the practical and emotional questions of intimacy and marriage.
Although no gay couple would claim they have “solved” relationships, and many would point out that same-sex relationships come with their own sets of challenges, without the burden of history weighing on what it means to be a wife or a husband, we can find space to explore what it means to be a partner.
When I interviewed gay friends for this essay, one trend kept popping up over and over. While everyone had different guidelines for dividing housework (based on preference, work schedule, tolerance threshold, etc.), when it came to the big questions, specifically the Big Question, I heard the same innovative twist on the proposal four times in 10 minutes. Everyone wanted both the joy of being the proposer and the surprise of being the proposee. My friend Helen and her wife bought rings together and gave each other a six-month window; once one proposed, the other could “propose back” when she felt the urge. Another couple told a similar story, a proposal followed by a “counter proposal” so that neither partner was deprived of either side of the pre-marital coin.
When the rules don’t apply to you, you get to make up your own. Gay couples have been rule-breaking and rule-making for decades now and I think it’s time that we straight folks get in on the fun. It’s not a question of throwing out the manual entirely (unless you want to!), but of looking your partner in the eye and asking what makes sense and what makes you happy.
So the next time you’re wondering whether you’re resenting the laundry because you hate laundry or because you’re a woman and he’s a man and you hate laundry, ask yourself this: What would the gays do? As Helen says about her marriage, “It is pretty freeing to be able to organize it however we want. I think everyone could benefit from that.”
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.