Long before I met my first girlfriend, I knew I had within me the capacity to love beyond gender. I am attracted to every form; all our expressions of masculine and feminine. When I would tell people, they ask me to pick- surely I prefer one. “I don’t,” I’ve insisted.
There was a period where despite my insistence, I couldn’t quite be sure.
My first inclination was to reject the idea. I didn’t like the idea of my attraction being tied to gender but the longer I dated A., my first girlfriend, I began to wonder. I was told by a lesbian who’d dated men that “there’s something about two women, the chemistry is stronger somehow.” “It’s the gender norms, heterosexual relationships are so restrictive,” another lesbian told me. When it’s two women, there isn’t that. So it’s so intense.”
I begun to buy into it. That intensity I know well. Before she was my girlfriend, I thought I was beginning to fall for A. It was happening fast, faster than any other adult relationship I’d ever had but that didn’t deter me or her. And it was easy, easier than anything I’ve ever done in life. Like breathing, like blinking, I loved her, the first woman I’d ever been with. I look at my relationship then and my relationships in the past and see something I didn’t have before, no matter how nice the guys were: understanding.
Image: Caspargirl via Flickr
As another queer Black woman, she had a base understanding of me and of what I go through that my straight male partners did not. I didn’t have to convince her of my reality and struggles as a Black woman-- she lived it. There are things I don’t have to teach or explain to women, especially femme women, and that feels so very good. I don’t have to strategize or dual speak or think like a man; I say what I want and I am heard. And what an erotic experience it was to be heard.
The longer I dated A., the more I saw it. Those first dates with men, those first conversations would feel like we were sizing each other up, squaring off almost. I’d be wary, looking for lines that sounded recycled and he’d look too, trying to see if I fit some archetype “Wifey” or “Bootycall.” At the beginning in my relationships with men, I’d always be dishonest because I felt I had to. Pretending, for example, that I didn’t want to have sex for fear I’ll share my body and lose respect. When an appropriate amount of time had passed, pretending it wasn’t my decision, pretending I didn’t know what I wanted or how I wanted it. Men, I’d learned wanted to be men. Knowing myself, I’d learned, threatened that.
In the midst of it, I never fully noticed how deeply sexism is embedded in our daily lives, how it steps between two people and keeps them from really seeing, hearing each other. Months, even years into relationships it sometimes felt like yelling over the din of what men had been told about women, clamoring to be seen as an individual.
After moving in with my college boyfriend, he got me roses. “Your favorite,” he said.
I wrinkled my face. Roses are ok, but they aren’t my favorite. “No, my favorites are orchids and lilies.”
“I thought women loved roses!” he said incredulously, as though I personally lied to him. We’d been dating almost two years at that point. It was another thing I was “overreacting about” when I pointed out he was generalizing again.“So I can’t say dogs hate cats, either, I bet.” It turned into another fight that made me feel like we weren’t living the same reality. Just as white privilege makes it hard for Whites to see racism, male privilege makes it so men find it harder to see patriarchy.
Standing where I am now, after that first relationship with a woman, then dating men, and now dating women and men, I can see something I hadn’t fully seen before: sexism had kept me from connecting with the men I dated. It wasn't just theirs, either, but my own as well.
I approached women as though everything Audre Lorde had written about the love between women being revolutionary and freeing was true. I wasn’t treating them as individuals cabable of internalizing patriarchy as well. I, on some level, bought into the idea women were the safer option.
I created an image of all women as inherently more sensitive to my issues and humanity, as incapable of hurting me in the same ways. This is sexism, as was my assumption that every man would be patriarchal. Looking at my relationships with men now, I have to admit I didn’t give them the same things I readily gave women. I wasn’t open or vulnerable, I believed that all men would enjoy the chase. I believed that I’d have to prove my worth by being stand offish when I wanted closeness, that I’d have to analyze their actions and words to find lies (game)…simply because they were men.
All of this was unconscious. As revolutionary as I thought I was, as feminist as I fancied myself to be, I didn’t give my male partners the benefit of their feelings and humanity. I treated them like archetypes from a relationship advice book.
This is how insidious patriarchy is. I can see the blatant falsehood of dating manuals aimed at “getting” men to commit and “tricking” women into bed and relationships, but I didn’t see how I’d absorbed some of these as true. We’ve all been taught these things our entire lives, it’s ridiculous to think we aren’t all susceptible to them.
When my relationship with A. ended, I realized what role I had played. How I had given parts of myself and jumped in too early assuming things about her because of her gender and identity as Black, woman and queer. Admitting those mistakes helped me realize I’d done the opposite with the men before her, giving little to nothing because of their identity as straight men.
It is humbling. It is jarring.
It is hard to face yourself as you are when you wanted something else to be true, but this ability for hypocrisy exists in all of us. With feminism and critiquing patriarchy as unpopular as it is in our society, how many of us are suffering or causing pain in our relationships because we won’t hear our partners above the din of “men need…” “women like…”?
How many of us aren’t responding to our partners or are giving to unworthy partners because we’ve internalized messages about dating and what we can expect from men and/or women? It has taken me 27 years to learn these lies, I don’t doubt it will take the rest of my life to unlearn them. I’m grateful to A. for the ways she’s opened my eyes. I’m grateful for how I’m learning to love beyond gender, grateful for the lessons loving women has taught me.