Editor's Note: Guest blogger Pamela Milam, MA, LPC, NCC, BCC, is a therapist, author and life coach who splits her time between Dallas and New York. She is the author of Premarital Counseling for Gays & Lesbians: Case Studies and Helpful Questions and a contributor to Rewire Me.
I have been living with my same-sex spouse for many years, and it's easy for me to forget that our relationship doesn't seem "normal" to some people. She and I both have dark, shoulder-length hair and hazel eyes, but that's where the similarities stop. She's tall and thin, and I'm short and of average weight. She's an olive-skinned Native American and I'm pale, white, and freckled. She's a confident corporate leader and I'm a self-conscious talk-therapist.
Still, often when we go to dinner or shopping, someone somewhere stops us and asks, "Are you sisters?"
Um, no, we're not.
Sometimes people just assume: "Oh, look, you brought your sister with you. That's so nice."
But even when the person goes to the trouble to ask, the recurring question is something I've always wanted to dodge. You see, I just want to cash my check, or buy that sweater, or order the veggie burger with sweet potato fries. I don't want to get into a political discussion or delve into an account of the nature of my relationship with my spouse.
I've dealt with "Are you sisters?" any number of ways. Sometimes I say "no" and that's that. Sometimes I say, "No. Why, do we look alike?" More recently, I've started saying, "No, she's my spouse." Then there's the inevitable stuttering, sputtering, squinting incomprehension, religious intervention, awkward apology, or, if we're lucky and the stars have lined up exactly right, a smile.
I wonder what brings on that question. We walk close to each other, not with obnoxious displays of affection, but not shying away from touching each other, either. We talk with our heads leaning toward each other, as most couples do. We don't hold hands and skip or anything like that. We're just two people who care about each other running errands, eating lunch, pumping gas, or standing in line at the bank.
Every time it happens I feel uncomfortable and then baffled. I almost always feel exasperated. I used to engage in a brief revenge fantasy: I imagined going up to every straight couple I saw and saying, "Is this your brother?" or "Oh, I see you brought your sister with you to the mall today!"--hoping it would give others an experiential understanding of how invalidating, uncomfortable, and frankly kind of creepy it is to be asked that question. I just wanted to get people to understand my experience, but obviously that wouldn't have been the kindest, best way.
My spouse and I probably convey a closeness that makes people wonder whether we're related. I think that's because the other option--that we're a married couple--hasn't been integrated into the common social consciousness. Not yet.
It dawned on me recently that the only way I can do my part to promote acceptance, understanding, and openness is not to sidestep the question. I have to be sure to answer politely and honestly every time, even if it means dealing with disgust or awkwardness or conversations I'm not in the mood to have.
Maybe there will come a time when two dark-haired, middle-aged females go shopping together and the stranger, the onlooker, the curious clerk, might wonder, "Hmmm... are those two women spouses, friends, or sisters?" And that will be a perfectly normal question to ask.