A personal look at challenging gender roles in lesbian relationships
My roommate Sari Stifelman, a senior at Ithaca College, met Beth* on Tinder. Just over a week after their first date, Beth asked, “So who do you think is the guy in this relationship?”
“I think we’re both just girls,” Stifelman replied, but the conversation continued. Beth attempted to label their actions and behaviors as feminine and masculine. Stifelman paid for the date, a masculine trait, according to Beth. Beth admitted to needing a lot of attention, which she characterized as feminine, but Stifelman has a very feminine fashion sense, convoluting the whole situation.
According to Margaret Nichols’ study, published in 1990, Lesbian Relationships: Implications for the Study of Sexuality and Gender, “Lesbians in the 1950s often assumed rigid ‘butch-femme’ roles in their couple relationships, and the butch-femme phenomenon seems more related to an imitation of existing heterosexual models of relationships than to the formation of erotic attraction.”
Since the 1950s, lesbians have been given more social liberties, giving women a chance to diverge from the imitation of their hetereosexual counterparts. Stifelman said she considers herself femme, and although one of her previous relationships had conformed to the rigid butch-femme model, in Stifelman’s eyes, she and Beth were femme-femme. “For the time that we spent together, we both equally paid our way if we’re talking strictly monetary. It was very much equal,” Stifelman said.
Nichols also wrote, “It appears that many lesbians cherish committed relationships as the most important aspect of life and attempt to incorporate feminist values of equality into their partnerships, although not always with more success than heterosexual women or gay or hetereosexual men.”
Finding equality is a struggle in any relationship, but perhaps the issue here is the definition of equality. While it can be a very objective concept — who pays for what and how often — it is the emotional equality that can often be most difficult to achieve: who opens up to whom and how much.
According to the study Lesbian Dating and Courtship from Young Adulthood to Midlife, published in 2002 by Suzanna Rose and Debra Zand, “Participants cited four major categories of uniqueness [compared to heterosexual relationships], including freedom from gender roles, heightened intimacy/friendship, the rapid pace of lesbian relationship development, and the effects of prejudice.”
The 38 lesbians aged 22 to 63 involved in this study cannot speak for all lesbians — and certainly not college students living in a world very different than it was fifteen years ago — but the study’s findings highlighted issues that are still relevant: “How lesbians convey and interpret sexual attraction is an interesting question, given neither woman is likely to have been socialized to assume the initiator role… 50 percent indicated on the gender role measure that they ‘always’ or ‘almost always’ waited to be asked for a date.”
So while a majority of women were taught at a young age that men make the first move and women are the reactors, it can be inferred here that the other 50 percent of women in this study do initiate dates with other women; it’s equal, 50/50.
But what is that first move exactly? According to Rose and Zand, there are two ways lesbians make initial contact, “direct verbal declarations” and “nonverbal proceptive behaviors,” the latter being more common.
When I found myself at the bar this summer making the sort of eye contact considered to be nonverbal proceptive behavior, I knew I was making a move, but I had not considered my tipsy flirtation with this woman to be the first move toward something more serious. It was when she approached me and verbally flirted back that led me to believe it could be something more.
Perhaps to the outside eye, this woman, taller than I and dressed entirely in menswear, who had offered to buy me a drink that night, would presumably have been the man in the relationship. But as we spent more time together, her society-defined masculine behaviors mostly of the monetary variety were canceled out by our emotional intimacy, which we did our best to keep equal.
When I asked her one day why she always insisted on paying for everything, she said, “I like to take care of someone and paying is a material way to do that.” It was not because she felt she had to take the stereotypical masculine active role, but because she just wanted to be kind.
While this woman’s outer appearance remains largely androgynous, her behavior toward another women is entirely situational. “It depends on the degree of which I’m under the influence, my mood, and the degree of how attractive I find a girl,” she said.
She admits to using more nonverbal proceptive behaviors than direct verbal declarations and said, “People used to joke that all I had to do was stand at the bar and girls would come to me.” But again, when I met her, roles were reversed, and she approached me. It’s situational, though she said assumptions are often made that because of her appearance, she will take on more masculine stereotypes.
I think the best way to answer the question of whether gender roles exist in lesbian relationships, is to refer back to what Stifelman said: “I think we’re both just girls.”
Appearances and behaviors are all just attempts to be happy with who you are as a person and to share that happiness with another person. In other words, the labels are futile; we both wear pants.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Jodi Silberstein is a senior journalism major who loves pants and believes everyone should be allowed to wear them. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.