What began as a conversation about me joining my boyfriend at his parent's house in Durham, NC for a quiet, introductory Thanksgiving turned into me and my boyfriend driving from DC to an extended family Thanksgiving extravaganza in the suburbs of Detroit.
Waiting for us there were 20+ members of his family and a couple of friends, only one of whom I'd met before -- his Mom.
What's interesting about this story? From the bird's eye view, you'd say it's that he's black and I'm white. You'd say it's that we're gay and no one else there was. You'd say it's because he'd never taken a boyfriend to a family event that large. But you'd only kind of be right.
What turned out to be most interesting (to me) was my gendered experience of the whole affair. Not that gender can be separated from race and sexuality here, but if I had to single one out, I'd single out a boy/girl dynamic that just didn't quite make sense. Which, if you read on, you'll see was both good and bad. Who would have thought?
Let me preface by saying that I love my boyfriend and, having only spent three-ish days with his family, love them, too. They were as kind, welcoming and unconcerned with a gay couple roaming the house and playing with the kids as you'd expect them (or any other average American family) to be. Yes, I was introduced as my boyfriend's "friend." Yes, the word gay was only uttered when I explained what I do for a living. Yes, people belonged to religious denominations that, on the surface, I'd expect to be extremely anti-gay.
But none of that really mattered when the mashed potatoes were passed, or when stories of hellish Black Friday shopping experiences were shared, or when we played cards, watched TV and devoured multiple, delicious pies.
Still, there were times when I just didn't quite know what to do with myself. And I finally figured out why. I was a boy in the house who didn't know how to just be one of the boys. Granted, I'm not genderqueer or trans. They called me male at birth and I've felt and "acted" male ever since. But I'm more than willing to jump in on the cooking. And I'll watch football but I'd rather gab over cocktails.
Now, I know for the astute readership of the Bilerico Project, this gender observation doesn't seem that profound, but I make note of it precisely because of how long it took me to put my finger on it -- the lingering effects of gender roles in the modern American family. This was a group of people replete with professional women -- attorneys, therapists, funeral directors, human resource specialists, etc. The men cleaned up after dinner as the hostess reminded us about equal rights, if only a little tongue-in-cheek. Women watched sports and rooted harder than the men, at times. And it was the men, not the women, who went to retrieve the great aunt from the assisted living facility down the way.
And yet, at the end of the day, the men tended to hang out with the men, and the women tended to hang out with the women. The men did some cleaning, but not a majority of it. Same with the cooking. And the women watched some sports and played some cards, but they were the only ones to hit up the mall.
When the 20+ men and women gathered in that Detroit suburb weren't approaching gender equity, in the sense that traditional gender roles ceased to apply, they were, as are most Americans, still operating according to the rules and habits of boys are boys, girls are girls.
Hence the confusion. You see, my boyfriend is very family-oriented. His upbringing was solid, consistent, positive. Mine, on the other hand, was fairly turbulent -- dysfunctional, to say the least. He doesn't like when I say disparaging things about family, period. I'm learning to be more family positive, through my work supporting LGBTQ-headed families at the Family Equality Council and through transformative experiences like the one I had this weekend with his wonderful family at Thanksgiving.
But the time I felt the most tension with my boyfriend during this three-day period was precisely when the attempt at gender equity -- the attempt to live up to contemporary notions of what men can do and women can do -- fell away. Because when the men hang out mostly with the men, and the women with the women, couples tend to do very little hanging out together...
Under these circumstances, I couldn't really tell what my boyfriend wanted me to do:
Did he want me to act more like a "girlfriend," hanging with the female members of his family, doing the gabbing and the tidying up, because he's my boyfriend? I'm comfortable with doing those things, to an extent, but I do none of them in order to be more feminine. That's just not what motivates me to do traditionally feminine things.
Or did he want me to just be "one of the guys," an interesting proposition when one of the other guys is the man I sleep with, and when straight men are still supposed to fall back on the idea that homosexuality is anathema to proper manhood -- a feeling I picked up on from male members of his family, even if unintentionally, a couple of times.
It's fair to say, I think, that in a situation with 20+ family members from around the country, cooped up in a house together over Thanksgiving, gorging themselves, catching up, a few strangers in tow, that everyone involved was doing their best to shed differences and enjoy the commonality of what brought us all together -- a love and respect for family, old and new.
But I'm still not sure, as I move forward, how to navigate the nagging gender line. It's not at all an issue localized to my boyfriend's family. And as lines continue to blur -- the man with the dish rag, the woman with the cheese head -- but don't completely go away, how do we know where the envelope is to push it? Or maybe we don't need to push as much anymore -- in situations like these, that is. Maybe we just need to be ourselves and watch as things settle in. Either way, I see it as a good and a bad thing. The fact that I'm even confused about when I'm "supposed" to be a boy and when I'm supposed to just be me and do the things I do is a step in the right direction. The fact that it becomes harder to figure out when it's right and when it's wrong to judge or push people for their gendered behavioral prescriptions is at least problematic, if not "bad."
In the meantime, I'll take heart in the fact that I felt little discomfort over being gay, in particular. We've got a lot of work to do, sure, but I just ate Thanksgiving with my boyfriend's family in the suburbs of Detroit. And I feel pretty good about that.