I am currently reading Helen Boyd’s book She’s Not The Man I Married. In this book, Boyd describes what it is like to be married to a transgender woman, and how that relationship has completely rewritten the ways she thinks about her own gender and sexuality, both of which are thrown into question by her husband coming out – if she plays the man’s role from time to time, does that make her less of a woman? If she is now married to a woman, does that make her gay, or at the very least queer? As a feminist, Boyd is keen to dismiss the labels and the gender roles now that they no longer fit her precisely, but is unable to do this if her husband is to transition… gender plays a very concrete role in their relationship, and so she has to explore it, and tackle it head on, rather than ignore it.
When gender is such a large facet of your relationship, Boyd tells us, you find yourself thinking about it all the time, which means it throws up problems all the time. But the problem with using gender as the framework for issues in a relationship is that the language we use is so inexact. Boyd writes:
“As a writer, I’m often offended by how inaccurate our language is when it comes to gender. ‘Feminine’ is used to stand in for all kinds of other words – like gentle, permissive, empathetic, kind, nurturing. Those are also the traits people imply when they say ‘woman’. ‘Masculine’, likewise, is used to mean strong, athletic, protective, gruff, or authoritative. Sometimes I feel like a writing teacher walking through the world – and the trans community – because I want to stop all the time to explain, ‘Say what you mean, because ‘feminine’ doesn’t mean anything.’”
Even words that don’t describe gender, such as “nurturing”, are so gendered that you soon realise they mean a lot more than they’re saying. To “nurture” something is to provide it with what it needs in order to grow; in this sense, is the typical ‘breadwinner’ masculinity any less nurturing than the femininity that slices the bread and feeds it to the family?
It made me realise how often, when it comes to relationships, I find myself thinking about myself in highly-gendered terms and then don’t bother to unpick what that means. Social conditioning tells me that asking a guy out is no way to start a relationship, that it is ‘emasculating’… but just think about that word for a second. There’s no feminine equivalent. All the other words that I might use to describe a person who would ask another person out – ‘confident’, ‘flirty’, even ‘forward’ – are words I don’t mind being described as. But if you suggest I’m in any way less ‘feminine’ because of it, I back down and go back to sitting in the corner looking pretty and waiting to be asked to dance. I like being feminine, and it’s a huge part of how I construct my identity – in the films I watch, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the way I present myself. However at the same time I don’t like playing games or messing people around; I am a pretty straightforward person and I prize honesty above most other virtues and it turns out that applied to the world of dating, those qualities turn me into a “man”. What’s with that?
Gender is important for a lot of people, and I’m not going to go all Judith Butler and say we should stop thinking about it all together. I don’t want to take anything away from people who, unlike me, have a strong sense of their internal gender. I’m just saying that we should start being more precise about what we mean by it. In my last relationship, I often complained to friends that I wished my ex would be “a bit more manly sometimes”… by which I meant, I wished that he would stick up for me more if his friends were teasing me. When I thought I wanted to “feel more like a woman” in bed, I really meant I wanted him to be slightly more sexually aggressive. By using gendered terms when I was talking about our problems, I was ducking the real issues and ignoring the question of what I really wanted. Luckily, I learned this lesson early; though, judging from the way he complained about being ‘whipped’ without ever telling me what exactly I was doing wrong, he didn’t.
Gender roles are imprecise because they encompass so many things. ‘Dependency’ is clearly associated with femininity in relationships, but would we call the role of mother ‘dependent’? Surely it implies the opposite, because ‘mothering’ someone means they are entirely dependent on you. I have heard many times girls with clingy boyfriends voice the wish that they’d just “man up”, but what if the ‘man’ they are being is a son relying on his new maternal figure? Instead of bringing gender into it, call it what it is, and then you won’t be misunderstood.
When it comes to sexuality, gender becomes even more complicated because we define our sexuality by what gender we are attracted to. I’m heterosexual, but what does saying that even mean? I’m certainly not attracted to every man by virtue of them being a man. The problem with the labels of heterosexual and homosexual is that they are creating a gender binary that doesn’t exist in the real world; where do the thousands of gender non-conforming people fit into this narrow idea of sexuality? Again, isn’t it easier to be honest about what we are really attracted to – I like narrow hips and body hair and stubble; it’s rare to find a woman with these qualities but I won’t rule it out in the future – after all, body type and genitals don’t define our gender.
The problem with a binary is that you have to fit into one side of it, or the other; if I take the role of ‘man’ by asking people out, I should expect to be the one who “wears the pants” in the relationship; when in reality, we all have a huge range of personal qualities, some of which are masculine, some of which are feminine; some of which we’ll like in others, and some of which we won’t. Being masculine in some senses doesn’t stop me being feminine in others – gender is not a scale, like hot and cold. If we become more precise in describing these things, not only do we make our relationships stronger, but we stop excusing all kinds of unacceptable or even abusive behaviours because “that’s just what men/women do”. There are almost three quarters of a million words in the English language; let’s start using them.