Drew Cordes

Holiday dinners: Pass the gender roles

Filed By Drew Cordes | December 27, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: gender nonconformity, gender roles, patriarchy, transgender

The holidays always provided me an opportunity to observe the curious divide between our world's two most popular genders. White DishesEvery year, at every age, I have sat at tables with both sides of my family for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners--most with expansive and wonderful fare, some a bit baffling (enchiladas for Christmas? Really?).

Every year, the same actions wrinkle my mouth in thought. At the end of the meal, all the women stand up and begin clearing dishes from the table, then congregate in the kitchen to clean plates, load the dishwasher and squirrel away the leftovers. Meanwhile, the men remain seated, chatting and waiting for desserts to arrive, which are brought to the table by the women, of course.

When I was a young boy, this process was so mysterious. It was almost a ritual. No one spoke of what was going on, or even acknowledged it, but everyone intuitively knew the script and followed it strictly.

Back then, I was not the fearless, queer gender warrior I am today, so I stayed at the table with the men. I never considered clearing the table or doing the dishes to be "women's work," but the unspoken specificity of this ritual intimidated me. I did not want to break the code.

As I grew, I began to see the silliness of such gendered actions. Clearing a few dishes is the least one could do to battle restrictive gender roles, but it still matters. Additionally, due to countless dates with clueless, rude men, manners and etiquette started to matter more to me. Helping to clean up is simply the polite thing to do - regardless of gender.

Now that I'm a girl, this custom throws me for a loop. I continue to clear and clean because it's polite, but now the voice in my head needles me with questions. "Are you really choosing to do this, or are you doing it because it's expected of you? Is it expected because you're female? Aren't you bowing to the patriarchy by doing this?"

This situation mirrors some other areas of my life. I love to cook, for example. I live alone, so I cook for myself. I ask myself, if I had a boyfriend or husband, would the cooking then become expected of me? Will I cease to enjoy it once we decide that cooking is my "job?"

I've hated and resisted the boxes we put ourselves in all my life. Now I'm often putting myself in the exact same boxes of domesticity that imprisoned women for so long.

There's no easy resolution for these feelings. I try to remind myself that the crucial part of these internal conflicts is choice. These acts are not oppressive if I choose to do them while of sound mind. It gives me pleasure to do them.

This fact doesn't banish all the issues of gender roles and centuries of patriarchal dominance, but do I really need all this intellectual masturbation and harsh analysis? I'm at a dinner table talking with my family, not theorizing in a classroom. At that moment, those arguments become less important. And like I said before, it's just polite, so I'll keep doing it.

Although, speaking for all women, a little help from the men wouldn't be so bad.

(Photo via Emily Carlin's Flickr photostream)


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Christmas enchiladas are traditional in New Mexican cuisine.

"Christmas enchiladas are traditional in New Mexican cuisine."

I've lived in New Mexico over ten years now, and I think enchiladas are eaten year round. Tamales are considered more of a holiday "special occasion" food, I think.

You're right, tamales are standard Christmas fare in the Southwest. Posole is also traditionally served at Christmas in New Mexico. But a dish called Christmas Enchiladas, made with both red and green chile sauce, would not be at all unusual to be served for Christmas dinner, though it is eaten year-round.

The question only becomes how you make the enchiladas. Are they stacked, with an egg on top like they should be or those rolled things that some people call enchiladas? Said with tongue firmly in cheek.

We didn't have this issue, but I did have to correct my sister's use of pronouns when she mentioned that she was shocked about seeing a transwoman at her friends high school and caller her "him". I told her that was not only impolite but incorrect and that she needed to get educated on the issue and directed her here and to PHB for more info.

I doubt she will follow up as she is very closed minded and not a little bigoted, but it doesn't hurt to give resources even in remote possibilities.

Tony Soprano | December 28, 2010 1:25 AM

Great insight, Drew.

As the husband of a transwoman, I am thankful for, yet somewhat resentful, that my wife feels it is her "duty" to cook or clean for me. Maybe she feels not only obligated but glad to be able to do so, because, before transition, she, too, was expected to adhere to certain gender roles.

I DO appreciate my wife's caring and special attention. But, there are no gender barriers in our home. I'll go shopping, do a load(s) of laundry, vacuum the rug, and even wash dishes (so long she doesn't get an urge to cook at 9pm!). A good partner is a good helper, no matter what the relationship demographics.

What's important? Respect, love, truthfullness, generosity, fidelity, etc, and not being blindly limited by pre-conceptions and tradtional definitions of "man", "woman", "husband", "wife", etc.

Very cool story and I hope that you don't mind if I start using "world's two most popular genders" that is priceless.
I remember when I was a little boy living on a farm people thought me odd because I didn't stay within the normal gender roles. I was lucky that my grandparents 'got it' and I had a set of uncles who were partnered so they kind of made sure that I was not bothered for it. I might spend one day hunting or fishing and the next day helping to sew a quilt or learning to crochet.
In my family there were the gender norms but there were a few of us, usually two or three in each generation, who blurred those lines freely. We were lucky enough to be left alone. Most people come out pretty early in that family also.

The first time I ever met a group of trans people was at a mixed support group for their holiday dinner. It was also the first time I presented as my proper gender in a public place.

The wives fixed all the food but what shocked me was that when the dinner was finished, it was only the wives who then cleared the table and cleaned up while the trans "women" remained seated and talked about sports and cars......with the single exception of myself. I cleared and cleaned with the wives.

At our own home my ex, my daughter and I all cleared the table and cleaned up together. Whenever I was at someone else's house (long before transition) I always made a point of offering to pitch in because it was the polite thing to do. Sometimes the offer was taken, other times the strict gender roles dictated otherwise. Once in a great while the men would also offer.

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | December 29, 2010 4:33 PM

I just love that you're writing here, Drew!
Keep up the good work,
Andrew