Over at For the Byrds, Amanda began a discussion about the way she feels when someone asks her if she’s married. The problem is that they’re not asking if she’s married to her same-sex partner, but rather assuming that she’s straight and available for hitting on. Rather than clog up her comment box, I thought I’d reply to her here.
Yes, this has happened to me. Yes, I feel awkward when asked. No matter how many times I’ve done it, it’s always a bit stressful to come out of the closet. Even though I live my life as openly and uncloseted as I can, I can never be out enough. I pass as straight most of the time, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t control others’ assumptions. And when they ask me, and I reply that I am partnered with a woman, sometimes, no matter how nicely I put it, the listener assumes that I am being hostile, or pushing a point, or too in-your-face. The very real possibility of getting a hostile response to my polite answer to an impolite social question makes me (at certain times and in certain situations) reluctant to answer that question. Makes me wonder how I can avoid having the question asked. Because no matter how casually thrown out the question is, no matter how impolite, no matter the circumstance, the question and the answer is always political. It is a political issue that people assume they can ask personal questions about a woman’s relationship status no matter what context in which they know her. The correction of assumed heterosexuality is a political matter. The making visible of yourself as a queer person in a loving relationship is a political matter. I try to live up to my political ideals, so I try not to allow the questioner assume that I am married to a man, or that my partner and I are not mere roommates or friends; but it is just so damn tiring to push the issue, to reveal myself again and again to people who don’t matter to me.
But sometimes it’s funny.
About a year ago Kristin and I decided to try a new Indian restaurant. The place was practically empty. There was one other party in the place. We were seated and made our selections. There seemed to be only 2 wait staff for the dining room: the man that took our order, and the man who brought it out. The man who took our order was very terse, as if he had so many, many customers that he barely had time for us. And it’s true that at that very moment the party of 6 was wanting their check so they could leave. I ordered Saag Paneer and Kristin ordered Chicken Tikka or Chicken Tandoori, or Lamb Vinadaloo, this part isn’t really important. I’ll just say (for completion) that we both had naan and drank water. Oh, and we ordered veggie samosas. That part is important. That’s where the strangeness starts.
The guy that brought out our samosas was, as far as we could see, the only other staff in the restaurant. The party of 6 left. We were alone in the restaurant besides the 2 wait staff and whatever managers and cooks were hiding behind the revolving door, if any. So, ok, back to the samosa guy. He brought the samosas and chutneys and left without saying a word. As we were eating them, we kept turning around to find him staring at us. Then, when he came to fill our water glasses, he asked us (in very broken and heavily accented English – I say this not to imply anything about him, but to let you all know how difficult he was to understand at times) if we had husbands. After a moment of figuring out what he had said, I said no. He went away. When he came to take the plates away he asked us if we worked together. I said no. He went away. Then he brought out my saag paneer. While he was placing my plate on the table he asked us if we were friends. Kristin said no, she said that we were family. He went away. He came back with Kristin’s dish (why he didn’t bring this all out all at once I have no idea) and asked us if we were mother and daughter. At first I though he had said “mad at her.” I thought that was a strange question, something that really didn’t deserve an answer, but I went ahead and answered no. After all, he still hadn’t brought out the naan, and what’s the good of saag paneer without naan? He went away. Kristin and I looked at each other and realized that he hadn’t said “mad at her” he had said mother and daughter. This upset me cause I’m pretty sure that he had gestured toward me with the mother part and gestured toward Kristin with the daughter part, and while I’m older than her, I’m only two years older than her, and I don’t think I look THAT bad. Then he came out with the naan and asked me if I was her Aunt. I said no! She’s my partner! He went away. We started eating. Kristin was laughing and teasing me about robbing the cradle. I drained my goblet. Unfortunately that meant that the guy had a reason to come back. He asked if we lived together, I said yes. He looked at Kristin and asked her if she is married. She said that yes, she is married to me. He looked at me again and said you are married? I said yes. He said, “You are married to each other?” I nodded. He looked back at Kristin and she nodded. He looked back at me. He looked at my breasts (I guess confirming that I am a girl). Comprehension began to dawn. He asked one more time if we are married to each other and when I repeated that we are he said (and this is a direct quote) “Oh, she gives you fever?” I, just glad that he had finally gotten it, said only yes. He looked at the two of us again and left. Kristin hadn’t understood what he said, she had heard, “she does you favors” which is quite bad enough and she couldn’t understand why I had said yes to that. I explained and she started laughing.
Now I was feeling pretty uncomfortable and shell-shocked and, frankly, offended that someone thought I could be old enough to be Kristin’s mother. Kristin, on the other hand, was flattered to be thought of as so much younger than me and thought the whole conversation was funny. I wanted to leave immediately, but she wasn’t ready to go yet and she bribed me into staying a bit longer by telling me that I could order my favorite dessert, gulab jamun. So, when the guy came back, we told him that I wanted gulab jamun and Kristin wanted kheer (I think it’s called kheer, I swear to god, we have ordered so many different versions of rice pudding for her that I forget which name goes with which cuisine). He went away without speaking. When he came back with our desserts, we could tell immediately who he liked better. Kristin’s glass of kheer was nearly overflowing (at other restaurants it’s served in the same glass, but the glass is only half full) while I was only given 2 gulab jamuns. And they were cold. Standard is three served hot. I pouted while eating my cold and gritty dessert while Kristin slowly savored her extra portion of sweetness. Finally, our too-busy-for-us-server appeared with our check and we left.
Though at the time I was not amused, and I was even more not amused when Kristin recounted the story for all of our acquaintances – playing up the part where she was the beautiful, young nymph being taken advantage of by the old hag – now I gleefully tell the story: “And then he said, ‘Oh, she gives you fever’ ha ha ha ha ha” But just because it’s funny doesn’t invalidate the fact that we were constantly interrupted – indeed, practically held hostage – by one man’s assumptions and sense that he had the right to question us about our relationship. We weren’t holding hands, we weren’t playing footsie, and we weren’t discussing our sex life. We were simply two young women (or one young woman, one old letch) out to dinner without a man. And that, apparently, made us fair game.