My So-Called Gay Life

Lesbians at Sydney Mardi Gras
Contrary to popular belief, lesbian life isn’t all Pride parades and salsa classes.

Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

This morning, I awoke to a strange bellowing: “Babe! Where is my black-and-white
gingham shirt?”

Was I having a nightmare? Had I awoken in a bizarro world in which I was supposed to know the status of my husband’s work shirts? This was not my beautiful feminist house. This was not my egalitarian lesbian life.

Wait. I actually did know where her shirt was. “I hung it to dry in the other bathroom, honey.” Grunt.

I know where every single shoe, sock, iPhone adapter, and book of matches is in our place, because I’ve spent the past five months working from home. Meanwhile, her hours at the office have climbed along with her paycheck. (And I am very grateful, both for her work ethic and for her job, which allow us to live comfortably.)

But the house, mainly because I am in it more, has become almost entirely my domain. I have somehow become a housewife—even though I’m trying to raise a career here, not a kid or anything else that might typically tether a person to more domestic responsibility.

How did this happen? All my life, I thought being partnered with another woman would mean a more equal household. We’d both have careers we worked hard for and at, and we’d split chores according to our interests and strengths. (I like scrubbing toilets; I don’t like hauling trash.) We’d never have to explain to one another why heteronormative households ran on the backs of women subtly (or not-so-) conscripted into heading up the second shift of corralling sweat socks, tossing busted-out boxer shorts, or organizing their days around visits from the plumber.

Except … that’s right where I’m at. When I worked full-time outside our home, there was a stronger division of labor. We each did our own laundry. We split the cooking. Now, I am very suddenly taking on more of the relentless, boring tasks that keep a household humming than I ever did when I was briefly married to a man. (Granted, we were 24. “Cleaning” meant stacking the Budweiser cans neatly. That was the least of our problems.)

It’s not just me this is happening to, either. Several of my femme friends (though it certainly doesn’t always break down that way) have expressed bewilderment that they’ve been drafted as “the homemakers”—even when they are working full-time. Their partners are simply working more, on a more traditionally “male” career track, and they’re really not interested in handling domestic life.

But we never banked on being wifeys, either. One friend, a very smart federal librarian, was so busy smashing the patriarchy in her youth that she almost put Tupperware in the oven last Thanksgiving. Now, with her partner zooming all over the country doing labor organizing, she’s wondering whether she’ll be the one organizing getting herself pregnant. Instagram reveals that a former co-worker has become the gay Martha Stewart—which is great, because his man won’t be home until 9, and he will be hungry.

Since she’s pulling such long hours, my partner’s household chores are now whittled down to one: the trash. That’s not getting done, either. I staged a protest by letting it overflow, but that just promoted me to head of pest control, too. I moonlight as Florence Nightingale, calming her evenings with lavender sachets. I am the family fun director: I got caught in a fire drill at Wal-Mart last week buying stuff for the camping trip we ended up canceling because of work. (Bright side: I got to see what the end times will look like.)

This sounds like complaining. Grow up! Who did I think would feed us and wash our clothes? But this is not the gay dream that was sold to us. We’re supposed to be taking salsa lessons or gazing into each other’s eyes on a roof deck filled with gender-nonspecific hotties. I’m supposed to be building a Pride parade float in a bikini. We’re supposed to be living in a VW bus on The Land and group-raising the children of our commune. Aha! That’s who was going to make us dinner!

Is it just D.C., where we live? Is there always a battle about picking up the slack when everyone involved is ultra Type A? Or has it always been this way with all couples? Maybe young gays like us are just now noticing, because we’re not so young anymore—and we’re not so different now.

Will my career be the one that’s put on hold or fizzles away when we have more family responsibilities? Will it be as unquestioned a decision as it seemed to be when I was with a man? Family-leave laws are better than ever for queer parents, but leave always endangers careers for women. Will adding a baby stoke the fires of feminist motherhood we’ve talked about in (naive, non-sleep-deprived) theory, or will we give in to the well-worn path of least resistance if it means a more steady income stream?

Feminism taught me long ago that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But mainstreaming plays its siren song. And even those of us who have tried hard to use those tools as weapons against the status quo seem to be picking them up increasingly often to anchor the IKEA shelving.