By Kai Noonan Coordinator, Domestic and Family Violence Projects, ACON
The people who make up the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities were raised on the same pop-culture relationships as the rest of society, from The Brady Bunch to Twilight. We too dreamed of such romances—we learnt about relationships from our parents and grandparents or books and love songs. As adults we are still captivated by the same super-couples as the rest of society, from Barack and Michelle to Beyoncé and Jay Z.
The challenge with the dominant culture is that almost all of the relationships that we grew up with are heterosexual relationships between cisgender men and women, and many LGBTIQ people feel lost or ill-prepared when it comes to navigating our own adult relationships. For this reason, many of us face the challenge of how to create a healthy relationship without many references and without knowing how it is ‘supposed’ to work?
Developing a good relationship takes skill, and skill often begins with good role models. Unfortunately, many of us lack good relationship role models who identify as being part of the LGBTIQ community.
Despite homophobia and transphobia still affecting us, there has been no other time in our history where LGBTIQ people have been able to be as open about our identities and our relationships as we are today.
LGBTIQ communities are forging new frontiers: we are starting to have public discussions about our gender and sexuality, we are defining our relationships, we are negotiating new gender roles in our relationships, and we are having more ‘rainbow babies’ than ever before.
‘Which one of you is the man in your relationship?’
‘Who will do the cooking and cleaning?’
‘Which one of you is the real parent?’
For many LGBTIQ people, these questions are familiar, frustrating and offensive. This may come as a surprise to some, but people in same-sex or queer relationships are actually not in cisgender, heterosexual relationships, so why should they perfectly fit into a neat and rarely questioned heterosexual dynamic? LGBTIQ people, to some degree, have the freedom to avoid making direct comparisons to non-LGBTIQ relationships; our relationships and our sex lives can be discussed as separate and different to heteronormative expectations. Though of course, heterosexism and the gender-binary are so deeply engrained in our society that it is not always easy to think, act and live outside that paradigm.
There is so much diversity within our own communities— there is no one ‘cookie-cutter’ relationship type for LGBTIQ couples that fits all. For example, contrary to popular belief and stereotypes, the traditional gender roles of the man and the woman are relatively non-existent in same-sex couples. This means that there is no ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a same-sex couple, even if one of the pair presents as more masculine or more feminine than the other. Interestingly, research also shows that a lack of conformity to traditional gender roles within a relationship increases relationship satisfaction. [1,2]
Most research shows that gay and lesbian relationships have the same level of satisfaction and happiness as heterosexual relationships.[3, 4, 5] This of course isn’t saying that gay and lesbian relationships are problem free, only that they have conflict with each other at rates similar to heterosexual couples. Research into levels of relationship satisfaction in couples where at least one person involved in either transgender or intersex is too scarce to comment on, however there is no rational reason to suggest that these relationships should be any better, or any worse, than any other relationship.
However there is something which does affect LGBTIQ people and our relationships: minority stress. Although many LGBTIQ people in Australia generally feel ‘safe’ to be ‘out’ about who they are, there are still lots of ‘little’ things every day, that other people don’t have to put up with. Add these ‘little’ things together and they become not so ‘little’ after all. These ‘little’ and ‘big’ things may be a sideways glare from a passer-by, looking around us before we touch our lover in public, hearing people say things like ‘that’s so gay’, being told we are in the wrong bathroom, or repeatedly being asked why we do or don’t wear make-up or why we do or don’t have long hair. We carry the weight of uncomfortable silence or conversation when someone meets us and assumes we have a husband or wife and we have to weigh up in our heads whether or not this is a safe time to correct that person about ours or our partner’s pronoun. We have to put up with all of this on a daily basis in order to be safe, or not to be the object of confusion, ridicule, scorn and stares. And all of this existed before the marriage equality debate in Australia. Since then, all of these ‘little’ things have escalated into very big things as our very identities, families and our intimate relationships—all of the things we hold most dear to us, is under scrutiny, up for debate and literally voted on by people who don’t even know us.
But despite all of this negativity, there is a plus side to facing all of this. For one, we don’t take it for granted when we feel accepted for who we are. We tend to form tighter friendship circles and tighter communities with people who we feel accept our gender and/or sexuality. We even have a name for these people that mean the world to us: our ‘chosen family’. The moments we share with our partner feel even more special when we can love each other in public and feel safe. For LGBTIQ people, forging safe spaces, creating bonds of trust, empathy, vulnerability, resilience and courage, become a part of our everyday actions, and we love our friends more for their ongoing strength. Because of these reasons, some of our relationships are actually better despite of, and because of, those ongoing ‘little’ and ‘big’ negative things.
No relationship is perfect because no person is perfect, no person will always be healthy and no relationship will always be healthy. Every relationship will undergo stress at times, but overall, a healthy relationship is one which will bring you more happiness than stress into your life—the rewards should outweigh the hard times.
ACON is a health promotion organisation specialising in HIV prevention, HIV support and LGBTI health. Visit acon.org.au to learn more.