‘Who’s the Man?’: Heteronormativity and Queer Relationships

Source: Jeff Shore

Source: Jeff Shore

Read this article in Spanish here.

People in queer relationships are often subjected to a barrage of ignorance from the straight community.

Whether it be invasive sexual questions or unwanted criticism, nothing seems to be off limits to the innocently inquisitive straight.

Inevitably, one of the more repetitive and annoying debates will be the age-old question “Who is the man and who is the woman?”

Ah yes, because as queer-identified people, the first thing we want you to do is shoehorn normative gender roles into our relationship!

See, the straight community just can’t fathom a bond that could function outside of heteronormativity.

‘Straightening Out’ Queer Relationships with Gender Roles

More people are accepting gay relationships (and I say gay relationships because by and large, despite great strides, the mainstream’s knowledge of queerness is rudimentary at best), but at the end of the day, desire is still largely understood as masculine/feminine.

While your object choice might be easy enough to grasp, the idea that you could have a viable relationship without the balance of gender roles can be disconcerting.

Now, I don’t mean to belittle the validity of anyone’s gender expression.

If you’re traditionally masculine or feminine, it doesn’t mean you’re a stereotype or “bad” queer representation.

Admittedly, I first came to terms with my own queerness through the lens of gender roles.

As a feminine woman, I reassured myself that it was acceptable for me to also like girls – having presumed myself straight beforehand – because my first queer crush happened to be on an androgynous woman.

I reasoned that my understanding of my sexuality and my femininity was not threatened because I was still attracted to masculinity.

Of course, I soon realized that this line of thought was frivolous. I had internalized the superiority of the masculine/feminine binary as a means of smoothing out the social realities of queerness.

I had measured the authenticity of my own sexuality by how legible I thought it would be to the straight community, which brings us back to why straight people feel so compelled and entitled to hold us to that same standard.

The Toxicity of ‘Natural’ Gender Role Supremacy

Being in the majority leads some people to falsely assume that they have an inherent right not only to interrogate those who are marginalized, but to judge everything by comparing it to their own worldview.

When straight people ask queer people to “straighten out” their relationship via assigning normative gender roles, they’re essentially prompting you to prove the validity of your connection by making it recognizable to them.

The implication is that you and your partner(s) should be striving to emulate straight dyads.

This supposedly innocuous logic quickly snowballs.

If queer relationships are an oddball subset of gendered social normativity, suddenly we’re all reproducing the gender binary and (in the minds of straights) subconscious straight supremacy.

After all, queer relationships are just an off kilter parody of heterosexuality, right?

Female/female couples seem to bear the brunt of such ignorance. Our cissexist, phallocentric society remains aghast at the idea that two women could possibly have a fulfilling relationship in the absence of a penis.

As a result, there is a particular urgency and fascination around discovering who really wears the pants.

Aside from being intrusive, these quests carry unfortunate subtext about gender expression and correlating personality traits, with masculinity being associated with dominance and femininity being associated with passivity.

The impulse to gender queer relationships has become so pervasive that many young queer people internalize the false masculine superiority complex as a means of making their queer identity visible.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that masculine-identified women have a tendency to be misogynistic and objectifying in their interactions with feminine women.

Why is it that you have to degrade femininity to assert your confidence in your own masculinity?

I don’t intend to generalize. Obviously gender expression varies person to person and I don’t mean to imply that masculine tendencies inherently make you misogynistic.

However, you can express your gender without replicating all the problematic baggage that came along with it in its traditional form.

Don’t Let Gender Roles Dictate Your Identity

Here’s the awesome thing about being queer: We don’t have to imitate straightness because by definition, we exist to oppose and critique it.

It’s the salad bar of gender and sexual expression. Mix it up with whatever you want! Or don’t.

The point is that you shouldn’t have to worry about checking boxes to please a group that isn’t even part of your own community.

And to the straights who ask who’s the man and who’s the woman: Believe it or not, it’s none of your business! Maybe they’re both men. Maybe they’re both women. Maybe they’re neither. If it’s not your relationship, it’s not your problem.

The heteronormative appropriation of queer culture needs to stop. No, we’re not modeling our identities and our relationships after yours. Stop trying to flatter yourselves by trying to convince us that we are.

Again, casting queer relationships in a heteronormative light is an assault to their authenticity. You don’t need rigidly enforced gender roles to build a real connection.

Not to mention that this ideology marginalizes vast subsets of identity. What if you’re a femme who likes femmes? A butch who likes butches? What about agender/genderfluid individuals? Where do they fit in?

Internalizing the expectation for a gender dichotomy within your partnerships might also be subconsciously limiting your own sexual expression.

When I was first coming to terms with my identity, I only “allowed” myself to like girls if they were masculine.

I refused to consider more feminine girls, despite the fact that I was occasionally attracted to them, because they symbolized the point at which I would no longer be able to understand my sexuality within the constraints of the heteronormative belief system that I had grown up with.

Who knows what kind of relationships I missed out on because of that fear of illegitimacy?

Embrace and Respect Queer Agency

Don’t hold yourself to mainstream expectations. No queer identity is wrong. Queerness can always be in flux.

No one else but you can sculpt your identity and your relationships. They’re yours.

Additionally, straight people often use their fascination with queer gender roles to deflect from their obsession with queer sex.

Our society is so saturated with heterosexuality to the extent that people can’t imagine how sexual pleasure could possibly exist outside of the traditional penis/vagina geometry.

This perspective is obviously problematic for a number of reasons. First, asexuals are completely excluded from consideration in the assumption that people in relationships have to be having sex. Romantic orientation isn’t always indicative of sexual orientation.

Second, using someone’s adherence to gender roles or lack thereof to try and determine what they do between the sheets is laughable. Since when does gender expression translate automatically to specific sexual preferences?

The implication is that masculinity is dominant while femininity is submissive, but that isn’t always the case. Would you assume every heterosexual couple acts the exact same way in bed together based solely on their gender?

Also, not all heterosexual couples are going to have a penis and vagina, so their sex lives might be different from the sex lives of those who do.

Above all, asking about anyone’s sex life without their permission is just rude and creepy. We’re not here for your titillation, so please don’t contribute to already rampant queer fetishization.


Rather than investigating gender roles to arbitrarily rationalize someone else’s relationship, respect their rights as fellow human beings.

Instead of asking who’s the man and who’s the woman, ask yourself why that question matters to you in the first place.

[do_widget id=”text-101″]

Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to Bitch Flicks. Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91 and read her articles here.