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In this article I will explore two strands of the “straight safety net”-heteronormative assumptions and heterosexual privilege-and how these create often unacknowledged stress for queer couples. Following are three different scenarios from my sessions with queer couples that exemplify some of these common stressors.
1) Yvonne & Angela: How homophobia ruined our romantic vacation After I asked a lesbian couple why they hadn’t taken a vacation together in five years, this is what they told me:
I took her on what was advertised as a “gay-friendly destination” but as it turned out, we were the only queer couple in sight! Consequently she was really paranoid in public and wouldn’t hold my hand on the beach or became really uncomfortable if I suggested a restaurant that looked slightly romantic. She’s a butch woman, so people were staring at her anyway because they couldn’t quite place her on the gender spectrum. It pretty much killed the romance factor out in public, and unfortunately it translated into the bedroom as well. She just couldn’t make that transition when we were alone. It was as if she didn’t take a breath until we got home. Needless to say, we haven’t been on an overseas vacation since!
I think on some level I just didn’t feel safe. I didn’t speak the language or know the people. They stared at me all the time. I think they couldn’t figure out if I was a guy or a girl. It might sound ridiculous, but I was expecting to be attacked at any moment. Consequently, my guard was up at all times.
This couple had to deal with a whole set of stressors that a heterosexual couple would probably never need to consider when planning their holiday (like having to find a “heterosexually-friendly destination”). So much of the travel industry is geared towards the romantic getaway, but those getaways are mostly aimed at heterosexual couples. This omission of queer couples is part of what is termed “heteronormative assumptions.”
[Heteronormative assumptions] refer to automatic unconscious beliefs and expectations that reinforce heterosexuality and heterosexual relationship as the ideal norm. Thus, heteronormative assumptions create a society where only heterosexual relationships are visible (McGeorge and Carlson, 2011).*
Although the travel industry has become savvy to a whole previously untapped market and there are now ads for gay-friendly destinations on every queer travel site, the truth is that this can also be a marketing ploy. As Yvonne and her girlfriend found when they got to their “gay-friendly” destination, the locals hadn’t been informed!
2) Gloria & Maria: A pregnant lesbian couple’s first birthing class together
I was so uncomfortable that we were the only queer couple in the room! On top of that the trainer had us do an experiential where she asked the fathers to go on one side and the mothers on the other. She at least corrected herself when she saw me standing there awkward and alone. I felt so humiliated!
The rest of this session was spent processing Maria’s feelings about the class and her ambivalence toward attending more classes. Although Gloria was sympathetic to Maria’s dilemma, she was also clear that she wanted Maria’s support at the birth and needed to know that Maria had the knowledge to provide it. In the end, despite the stress the first class had caused, they did go back for another class and found to their delight that there was a new trainer who was much more GLBTQ savvy and aware. What a relief!
Again, these are not stressors a heterosexual couple would ever have to deal with. Being part of mainstream culture, it is easy for heterosexuals to take for granted the safety net that is automatically available. This is part of what is coined as “heterosexual privilege.” Furthermore the lack of affirmative mirroring that queer couples receive has both subtle and gross implications. “One of the less visible, but potentially most influential privileges that heterosexual individuals receive is an increased self worth that comes with being part of the dominant socially sanctioned group” (Hoffman, 2004; Worthington, Savoy, Dillon & Vernaglia 2002). When who you are and how you love is not reflected in your world, whether on TV, in films, books or other forms of mainstream media, the effect on self-esteem is persistent and corrosive, once again creating more stressors for queer couples
3) Disturbing comments from well-meaning family members
Even family members who are normally respectful toward a gay couple can fall prey to heteronormative assumptions. The following occurred during a session with a gay couple, one of whom was unemployed and looking for work. He had been offered a position overseas but had decided to turn it down because it meant being too far away from his partner. Mike: Can you believe my Dad encouraged me to take that job in Singapore with no regard for how it would affect my partner who has a full practice here? It was as if he saw me as a single man, living with “a good friend,” but certainly no one to consider if I was being offered employment overseas. He would never say that to my heterosexual brother and his wife!
Your dad is always friendly to me when he sees me but hearing that makes me feel invisible.
Mike’s father was unintentionally hurtful by omission. The undermining quality that this lack of mirroring creates has a corrosive effect on self-esteem. Mike is left with the message that his relationship is less visible, less valid, and less valuable than his heterosexual brother’s.
When I hold space for a queer couple in session, I am also considering factors outside the couple dyad, such as the effects of heteronormative assumptions and privilege that can exacerbate existing stressors in the couple. For instance, Gloria and her wife have all the stressors of being pregnant but not the knowledge that they are seen and held in a supportive community. Yvonne and her girlfriend finally find the time and money to take a vacation together only to discover they have to keep their guard up and don’t feel safe enough to express their affection and love for one another. Then, there is Mike having to deal with the crushing effects of unemployment on his self-esteem, only to have his father exacerbate this problem by unintentionally disregarding his long-standing partnership.
Queer couples simply don’t have the safety net that heterosexual couples can take for granted. The society at large does not provide the validation and affirmation that a queer couple could rely on for support during difficult times. The need for this validation and affirmation first has to be acknowledged by the individual or couple and then self-generated. While many queer couples have been very resourceful in generating their own safety nets by building their own communities and support systems, the freefall, in terms of the stigma of being an outsider and the resulting isolation, is ever present for those who do not.
*McGeorge, C. and Carlson, T. S. (2011) Deconstructing Heterosexism: Becoming an LGB Affirmative Heterosexual Couple and Family Therapist. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 37(1), 14-26.