“Are you sisters?” and other hetrifying reactions to WLW relationships

A graphic shows holding hands. The title states, Are you sisters? and other hetrifying reactions to WLW reationships.

Hetrify [verb]: Coined by social media influencer and artist Florence Given, to be ‘hetrified’ is to be bombarded by heteronormative narratives.

As I tweeted about earlier this month, a recent trip to my (mostly) bi-yearly teeth cleaning went down as a bit annoying.

The fact is that this wasn’t my first annoying encounter with a hygienist. The previous October, a different hygienist performed my teeth-cleaning and asked about my life, school, my job (after learning I already have a degree), my future plans, etc. I told her about my upcoming, 4-month trip to the UK and that I was staying with someone I knew. Her tone shifted into that voice girls get during sleepovers when you’re talking about crushes.

“Is your friend a woman?”

Could it be, I thought. She really guessed I’m gay—the best day of my life! “Yes, she is!”

Her voice fell back into place. “Oh, I thought maybe your friend was someone special.” My excitement fell as fast as her girly secret-sharing octaves did.

Truth be told, I wasn’t really that annoyed by her, just disappointed. The heteronormative blinders of society and the ordinary acquaintances that fill my life are just so painfully disappointing that it causes irritation. It’s not her fault she’s conditioned to assume that the “someone special” waiting for me on the other side of the pond could only be a man, right? Straight-passing to the straights is just a fact of my existence—and an annoying one at that.

Fast-forward a year later to another teeth-cleaning with a new hygienist. My file kept notes of not just my teeth, but also my life—something I assume medical professionals might do to keep track of their clients. “I see you were headed to the UK last time we saw you,” she said. “What were you doing there for such a long time?”

“My girlfriend lives there,” I shared with no hesitation. I always find it much easier to out myself when questions present the casual opportunity, not so much when it requires a correction like the last situation. The hygienist prepped her station as she asked more questions about my job and degree. I told her I’m a writer; she asked if I planned on moving to New York or Chicago. “I’m thinking about the UK, but we’re trying to come up with a five-year plan right now.” I talked to her about how we haven’t decided where to live officially or the steps to get there.

She asked for my preferred toothpaste flavor and prepped the polisher. “So, what does your—friend do?” I didn’t miss a beat in the response, unlike her faltered question.

I shared this story a few days later with my family crew—by which I mean my younger brother, younger sister, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s brother. I sat in the backseat of the car, nestled between two of the boys. The boyfriend’s brother–the classic and lovable devil’s advocate–added, “I don’t think I would’ve known though, if I didn’t already know.”

My sister, Manda, jumped in, “But she already said ‘girlfriend’ and ‘we are coming up with a five-year plan.’ With a friend? I don’t think so!” The brother nodded and we all chucked together, sharing the ridiculousness of the situation. “You haven’t been ‘friended’ by anyone in the family though, have you, Jess?”

My memory flicked back to a moment where my then-mid-20s cousin got “friended” over her boyfriend by our grandma—knowingly. I haven’t introduced my girlfriend to that side of the family yet. It’s the only such moment I could recall. “People just say her name to me; I don’t think I have.” We drove away from the diner’s neon lights striking the black night. “A random person asked if we were sisters in New York, though.”

My girlfriend and I sat on some concrete steps outside of a small museum in the city. The steps faced a small open space, and the building was on a neighborhood street, nothing in the thick of the stop and go busyness of NYC. We packed ourselves some wraps for lunch, and I pulled them out of my backpack for us to eat before moving onto the next item on our itinerary. An elderly man (accompanied by a woman of his age) came up the stairs, complimenting us for how young and beautiful we were. Unthreatened, we thanked him and continued eating. “Are you sisters?” We laughed through the lesbian milestone, said no, and finished our lunch.

“Can’t that happen to straight people?” The brother wondered. I shrugged. I’m sure it could; maybe it’s just less of an occurrence.

“It just happens with gay women more,” my sister pointed out. “Girls are already really close compared to boys or co-ed groups; strangers can’t tell the difference. Don’t know why they need to.”

“Have you been asked if you’re related?” I directed towards her and her boyfriend.

She nodded and grimaced. “McDonald’s. Why would you even ask people that.” It wasn’t a question.

This isn’t solely a queer-woman issue, although it does seem that queer women come across questions about their relationship a lot more often. What is it about a couple that makes people ask if they are relatives? I can’t fathom it myself, ever approaching strangers in public and inquiring about their family trees, straight couple or otherwise. Neither could anyone else in the car that night.

I’d be curious to hear from more straight couples who’ve come across similar situations. As a lesbian, I hear about WLW couples confronting this question all the time. In fact, Rose and Rosie just talked about this happening to them at a restaurant this month. But hearing my sister’s encounter with it had me thinking: are my gay-blinders saying this happens to queer women more than it happens to our straight counterparts?

Regardless, the heteronormativity of the general population still has the annoyance effect that often goes without impacting opposite-sex couples in the same way. If I had said I was visiting my boyfriend in the UK, would my hygienist still revert to the word “friend”? I found it doubtful, considering she had no trouble using the world “girlfriend” to refer to her son’s partner. And at moments, I’ve preferred this type of annoyance over other hetero-minded reactions.

I’ll never forget the first time lesbophobia jolted the racing heart in my chest. My girlfriend and I had been united in 2016 for the first time, and a few people we knew online wanted us to run a YouNow to chat with us, so we did. Neither of us had streamed from it before, and we tagged the video in the “LGBT” category. Anyone was welcome to join the stream. Within 30 minutes, the number of men in the chat telling us to kiss each other (among other R-rated demands) outnumbered the friends we had chatting with us. We quit the YouNow and never tried it again. We laid in bed silently for the rest of the day, and we haven’t talked about it since.

I never revisit this memory. I’m not ashamed of my identity, but I think I might be ashamed of not standing up for myself or her from faceless men. My stomach churned then, and it does now. I’ve never talked about this—to anyone. I don’t like the taste of acid in my mouth.

Cishet men in the UK are gross. I’m sure there’s a fair share all over the world, but I’ve never known disgusting until the locals around the UK crawled out into the light of innocent places like bus stations and crosswalks. Maybe it’s because in my America, I’m secluded in “polite” homophobia and small-town culture. I’m rarely in a city. Rarely in bad areas of any city. But in England, I lost count of times I caught men eyeing me up anytime I held my girlfriend’s hand or touched her face. Sometimes they stare; sometimes they stick their tongues out; sometimes they stand too close or call from driving cars or lick their lips. I don’t encounter these kinds of men when I’m alone.

How quickly homophobia can turn annoyance into fear. I’m relieved that the news reporting of the two women beaten bloody on the London underground came after I left the UK this year; I might’ve avoided London altogether if it came before.

When Jas and I visited my college town, Grand Rapids, in 2017, we held hands outside of the art museum, walking a long stretch of pavement before getting to the doors. A teenage boy pointed at us. I caught the movement from the corner of my eye and swallowed. “I love that!” He called, clapping. “Keep doing you, girls! Love is love!”

I definitely have a preference for the kind of harassment hand-holding seems to elicit, but damn we just want to hold hands.

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5 thoughts on ““Are you sisters?” and other hetrifying reactions to WLW relationships

  1. Someone once asked me, when my girlfriend and I were waiting in line to pay at the supermarket, if my daughter was out of school for some reason…. Like duuude. I’m the younger one in the relationship!!! XD

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Grand Rapids can be very happy like that lol. It’s interesting how the way you’ve talked about it has made me change my view on the word girlfriend, how I hear it/use it, and how it’s changed. Like now if someone says it, I know they mean the person their dating (or that’s what I assume), where when my mom used to say it, I knew she meant friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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