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Robyn Harper Headshot

Equality and Gender Roles Don't Coexist When a Woman Loves a Woman

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Society had it all worked out for me in advance. As I was growing up, the message, though implicit, was loud and clear: Because I'm female, any of my future romantic endeavors would concern the male kind. This presented difficulties when I came to realize that I like girls, not boys. I couldn't fulfill my gender role as it was set for me. I fell short of society's expectation, and this came at a price. I thought I was "different" because of this. I felt that I couldn't be who I was, who I am, who I've always been. But I didn't know any better at the time.

I would come to learn that society was not taking account of me as a person, as an individual, but saw me as a gender, as a female. I would come to understand society as a dictator of gender roles, decreeing commands and orders, lending to this culture of conformity. It says that as a girl, I should have grown up to like boys, and that boys should grow up to like girls, and that little boys play with trucks while little girls play with dolls, and that boys have short hair and girls wear dresses. From the clothes we wear to the jobs we do to the length of our hair, any departure from these societal "norms" for genders has always been met with resistance.

As a young girl, Hillary Clinton wrote to NASA asking them what she needed to do in order to become an astronaut. NASA wrote back telling her there would be no women astronauts. There was once resistance to women voting. There was once resistance to men having long hair. Today there is resistance to women who want to marry the woman they love, and to men who want to marry the man they love. Society has resisted same-gender attraction. Society also resisted the idea of female astronauts. But in summer 2012 the world paid respect to the passing of Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She is survived by her partner of 27 years, Ms. Tam O'Shaughnessy.

History tells us that there has always been resistance to deviation from gender roles, so why would it be any different when it comes to orientation? While we can see that change has always been resisted, we can also see that the resistance was never justified. It never made it right. It was never right that women were precluded from becoming astronauts because of gender, just like it's not right now that couples are precluded from marriage because of gender. And of all the things history teaches us, it's certainly true that it repeats itself.

Same-gender attraction colors all of history. There was never an abnormality about it; only society chose to deem it abnormal. But that didn't make it abnormal. Society created and affixed the stigma. Statute books may have recorded prohibitions against it, and medical books may have recorded it as a "disorder," but that never made the prohibitions justified or the diagnosis accurate. They were discriminatory laws and erroneous assumptions fueled by misinformation, misunderstanding and indeed prejudice. They caused nothing but hardship and achieved nothing but the enforcement of gender roles. Same-gender attraction is perfectly natural and perfectly normal. It always was. The truth prevailed. Resistance had less to do with orientation and more to do with the role of a woman and the role of a man as per society's rules.

The Golden Girls' Betty White, who celebrated her 91st birthday this month, made a statement in support of marriage equality not so long ago. She said, "I don't care who anybody sleeps with. ... I don't know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don't worry about other people so much." Of course, the topic of orientation includes a sexual element. Orientation does not concern your whole life. It concerns your love life. And love lives include sex. Deviation from what's "expected" of one's gender has always met resistance, and the fact that this particular "deviation" takes place in a sexual capacity serves to exacerbate the situation and accounts for aggravated resistance. It's not just about long hair or occupations; it involves sex, and sex is somewhat taboo. It's not a general-interest topic of discussion. It's not like the weather. It's not a topic one uses to pass a couple of minutes in an elevator or waiting for the bus. People don't bring it up, and there's a reason for that. Sexual activity is a private affair no matter what genders it involves. To be fair, such thoughts shouldn't really be occupying the minds of any third party, never mind operating to fuel prejudice and discrimination. Betty White spoke sense when she said, "Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don't worry about other people so much."

Einstein said, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience," which has often been paraphrased as, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." There are different genders. There are different orientations. Our world is beautifully diverse. Some of us are attracted to women. Some of us are attracted to men, some of us to both. Same-gender attraction is not an exception to the rule; in fact, it's part of the rule, because the rule is that there's diversity in orientation.

Rules for genders don't really exist. They're thought to exist thanks only to those who cling to them, enforcing their illusionary limits, by way of fear and prejudice, in attempts to compel others to perpetuate and partake in the illusion to keep it alive. "Partake or suffer the consequences." "Conform or be 'different.'" For me, as a female, it was, "Grow up and like boys or be 'different.'" For boys, it's, "Grow up and like girls or be 'different.'" There's this choice of conformity or consequences. Yet we have laws, we have a Constitution, and we have a statute book. We have all these conduct-governing mechanisms to both keep us in line and keep us from harm. There is no use for superfluous gender rules. And to be sure, these rules don't come without sanction and punishment. People, particularly youngsters, pay a price for not abiding by these rules. Charged and convicted of "difference," there can be a debt to pay. That debt can be an expensive one; how do you even put a value on self-esteem and self-worth? These "rules" hamper, hinder and even harm. I mean, what do we think actually causes bullying?

A question often asked of same-gender couples is, "Who is the man and who is the woman in the relationship?" Some ask humorously. Some ask seriously. But it is perhaps the most illustrative example of gender-role conformity at its worst. There was never anything wrong with same-gender attraction. Same-gender attraction is not a problem. Society's expectation of gender roles is the problem. We are not just genders with roles to fill. We are individuals. John F. Kennedy said that "conformity is the jailer of freedom, and the enemy of growth." Growth embraces equality, and a society that honors equality cannot enforce gender roles, because equality and gender roles do not coexist.