No, We’re Not Sisters

What it’s like when a queer couple is constantly mistaken for family.

Two romantically involved young black women being mistaken for sisters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I’m leaning in to give my partner a goodnight kiss on the front porch of their house. The air is warm and breezy, the sun is setting; it feels like a dream. A dream we’re snapped out of when we hear someone calling out to us, “Are the two of y’all sisters?” It’s their neighbor, a gray-haired woman who’s peeking eagerly through the divider that stands between her porch and where we stand.

Neither of us flinch: We’ve been asked this question frequently enough that we’ve considered its origin before. For one thing, we have a similar skin tone and both wear round glasses. We also have a similar fashion sense. But then again, you’d never look at any two people dressed similarly, nor any two people with dark skin, and think they must be related. My partner wears contacts half the time, meaning there’s nothing to account for the instances we’ve been thought to be related while I’m wearing glasses and they are not. Our facial features aren’t too similar. In fact, we have different features altogether: noses, lips, eyebrows, ears, chins, smiles. We have the same general body type, but we’re shaped differently and are different heights. Yet just last month, the lady working in the convenience store saw us together for the first time and happily shared that she’d thought we were the same person all the times we’d come in separately before.

We joke that when we finally move in together, we’ll both fill the stereotype of the older relative at the family reunion who convinces everyone that their significant other is just a close friend or roommate. The queer relative whose relationship will never be recognized by the rest of the family—as long as the family doesn’t want to see it. My partner and I predict that even in the far future, our relationship will remain invisible to our family and friends, and to the larger black community, because they don’t want to see romantic love between two people who both aren’t clearly feminine or masculine, light-skinned, and complacent in the identities we were assigned at birth. They’d sooner believe that two siblings are living together, holding hands, buying groceries, or whatever else siblings wouldn’t ever do.

Suffice to say, I’ve spent too much of my time analyzing whether my partner and I look different enough, rather than validating our appearances and examining the larger issue: that the world refuses to see us because neither of us is lighter than the other, and because both of us identify and appear as nonmen. These are the two binaries that keep my relationship from being visible to the public: gender and skin color.

Black queer people have traditionally been excluded from media, whether our identities are muted or are cut out altogether from TV shows or movies. Though there is very little portrayal of us, there seems to be a false understanding among nonblack and nonqueer people that we are either hypermasculine or hyperfeminine. But because of prevailing expectations and stereotypes of how black bodies exist, butch and femme roles do not speak to the segment of our community that functions outside of the gender binary.

Historically speaking, being queer is a relatively recent identity. There has always been queerness in the black community, yet queer identity is often framed by the black community as something invented by and belonging to white people, or an identity that cannot intersect with blackness. This belief is still in place today. The association of queerness with whiteness is important because it creates an erasure of black couples who are not different genders or with perceivably different gender presentations. It also enforces the media ideal where every queer relationship includes someone with light skin and someone with darker skin (though very rarely does that latter person actually have what’s considered to be dark skin).

We see this in Simon and Bram from Love, Simon, Kat and Adena from The Bold Type, Stef and Lena from The Fosters, and Lionel and Wesley from Dear White People. With so many white romances taking up space in the media, it seems as though there could never be two queer people of color in a relationship, or any queer relationship for that matter, unless someone with a degree of white privilege is involved. There needs to be a more realistic understanding of what a romantic relationship can look like, but more importantly, a widespread acknowledgment that the status of two people holding hands depends on what they say their relationship is, rather than confused speculation. Being mistaken for my partner’s sister is part of an anti-black and homophobic standard for what makes a romantic relationship.

I’m still unsure how I’m supposed to navigate my relationship with my partner in every space we enter: how I’m supposed to respond when we’re mistaken for siblings, if I should respond at all, if there can ever be a balance between visibility and privacy. And I’ve come to accept that not knowing is perfectly OK. I’m glad to have a committed partner who can help me to laugh at the microaggressions we face. Maybe what I really want is for us to be in public together without feeling the weight of what our relationship is expected to be. Our relationship doesn’t owe anyone any explanation, but demands respect, acceptance, and representation. And at the very least, the recognition that no, we’re not sisters.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.