As humans, we love things to follow a certain pattern and get uneasy when they don’t. In traditional societies, people are used to seeing women and men engaged in their traditional roles. Deviation from such unwritten rules isn’t easily understood or accepted. An entry of a woman in a skirt makes heads turn. A man looking after the house is scandalous. Writing ‘women and men’ instead of ‘men and women’ is also a departure from the unwritten rules.
Theoretically, homosexuality fights such as traditional societies. Patriarchy is an institution that vehemently tries to restrict our true state. It makes us fit in with specific gender norms. Men should be masculine, breadwinners, dominant; and women should be nurturers, caregivers, and submissive. Homosexuality tries to break down the wall of patriarchy; bringing people of the same sexes together, which is unheard of in a patriarchal society. In that manner, homosexuality should also not adhere to traditional gender norms propagated by Patriarchy.
But that’s not always true.
As a feminist stepping into the universe of LGBTQ, I had no idea that traditional gender norms not just exist, but thrive here. I erroneously believed that the stereotypical effeminate gay man was completely a fictional character (not saying they all are). For some reason, I believed that all homosexual men are, in the community language, ‘versatile’. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the existence of identities of ‘Kothi and ‘Panthi’. These are sexual identities, referring mostly to the sexual positions played by homosexual men- Panthis being the insertive partners and Kothis being the receptive partner. However, the identities are not confined to the sexual act itself. Kothis are queens in their natural habitat. They like to show off their femininity by dressing up in female clothing, applying make-up, and propping on a wig. Panthis, being the insertive partner, are supposed to display the characteristics of a masculine man.
These have a stark similarity to the gender norms that exist in the heterosexual society. Kothis, by virtue of being the receptive partners in sex, take on the feminine characteristics. Panthis have become the dominating, masculine men. In a world of men loving men, we find men and women.
Ashok Row Kavi, founder and former chairperson of The Humsafar Trust, believes this to be an imitation of the heteronormative society. We live in a society where the norms for the behavior of men and women have been set. Films portray relationships which have strong men, who fight ten people at once, and women, who sit pretty and fast for lengthening their husbands’ life. Members of the gay community are brought up in this society; they carry the norms in their relationships.
This reason was reiterated by a colleague of mine, an out gay man. Giving his own example, he explains, his parents and heterosexual couples have influenced him unconsciously into believing that a homosexual relationship should have one partner who assumes masculinity and the other who assumes femininity. He himself wishes for such a relationship with a man. He cannot imagine a homosexual pair where both are effeminate. “How can both be feminine?” he asks.
Aarti (name changed to protect identity), a lesbian woman, agrees with my colleague on the point that the environment that one is brought up in has an effect on our perception. If one has been brought up in a largely heteronormative society, one fails to perceive a couple that does not have a man and a woman. She also believes that the homosexual community might be involuntarily seeking validation from the heterosexual community and hence tries to exhibit the traditional gender norms in order to ‘fit in’.
A study published in the American Sociological Association manual found that same-sex couples attribute stereotypically male and female chores to the "more masculine" partner and the "more feminine" partner respectively. The author of the study reasons that in homosexual couples, people use gendered differences to approximate sex differences.
What is the view of homosexual couples?
Tinesh Chopade, who works at the Humsafar Trust, has been living with his partner for the past 7 years. In their relationship, they have divided the chores according to their likes and dislikes. They don’t define themselves according to gender norms. People in the community try to find out who’s the man when they interact with Tinesh and his partner. Nobody has outright asked them about it but he knows that the thought must’ve come to them. He reasons that it depends on what people are driven by. If a person wants to know who is fucking whom when interacting with a couple, the person is trying to find the ‘man’ of the relationship. If it is a person who cares for the well-being of the couple, they would focus and see the love between the couple.
Societal influence aside, is there another reason why we try to find men and women in homosexual relationships?
Judith Lorber quoted Foucault (1972); Gramsci (1971) in her paper ‘Night to his day: A social construction of gender’ which neatly summarises the point. They say, “Gendered social arrangements are justified by religion and cultural productions and backed by law, but the most powerful means of sustaining the moral hegemony of the dominant gender ideology is that the process is made invisible; any possible alternatives are virtually unthinkable”.
Binary Gender is part of our daily life. We use it to structure our lives. We need gender to know how to behave with a person. Our tone, bodily behavior, perceived threat changes according to the person we are interacting with. It functions subtly and we notice it only when there’s a deviation from it. Gender is so ingrained in our lives that if we take it out we are at loss. Drag Queen Conchita Wurst, who keeps her beard on, will confuse a person who has no idea of the community. Hence, we try to figure out who is the man and who is the woman in the relationship when we see homosexual couples.
However, having a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ in a relationship pressurizes a person. Tinesh shares an example of his friend. The friend fell for a guy who was similarly feminine as he is. But he didn’t take it forward because the gay community wouldn’t accept it readily. He basically thought “log kya kahenge”. The community also pressurizes a person to focus on sexual need more than virtues like trust, compatibility, mutual understanding which is why many homosexual relationships don’t stand the test of time. Tinesh feels that it is possible for two effeminate men or two masculine men to be in a relationship together if they value trust and companionship more than sex and societal norms.
Isn’t that how it is supposed to be? Masculinity and Femininity do not equal to being a man or a woman. They are characteristics that all genders imbibe in various intensities. They also differ from situation to situation. Our personality is made up of what we like, dislike, our behavior, and our needs- but not just sexual needs. Therefore, it isn’t correct if we try to define ourselves by just one need or one behavior. Defining oneself and others to a fixed set of qualities will restrict us from being free.
And what are we, if we aren’t free?