Today was my 32nd birthday. Sitting here at the end of it, I can confidently say that it's been an amazing day spent with my wife, Christa. We spent a large part of the day down by the wide Madawaska river which lays a short drive away from the Tiny House we're renting up in Northern Ontario. In the morning we swam and read, and in the afternoon we rented some standup paddle boards (SUPs) and spent a few hours paddling around the river. Though the events of the day were wonderful, I can't help but sit here and reflect on the sink-y feeling I was left with after a casual interaction with a local resident of the small town we're visiting.
When we went to rent the SUPs, we dropped in on the local Watersport rental shop and an older gentleman, the shop owner who was maybe in his late 60s helped us. He was kind, friendly and chatty, asking us about where we were from, what we do for work, and so on. While Christa was inside the shop paying for the rentals, the shop owner was outside with me in the 36 degree Celsius heat, helping me get outfitted. We had two paddle boards to rack up on our car, two paddles and two life jackets that came with the deal. He held up the two jackets we'd be borrowing and eyeballed which would fit me better versus Christa. With me being slightly more petite, he gave me the smaller one. "And your, er, friend, can take the other 'cause she's a bit bigger, you know." I paused at his comment and my mind whirled off in several directions at once in reaction to what he had just said.
This wasn't about him saying anything about Christa's size — she's 6 feet tall, so literally, yes, bigger than me. It was about him calling her my friend. A close friend had done before at a party when he was introducing us to his mates. For the first few introductions, Christa was also called my friend. "This is Christa, Katarina's friend." This went on until I quietly advised that she was in fact, my girlfriend. I hadn't really understood when Christa commented about how she felt as though our relationship wasn't taken as seriously as straight couples', but by now I was catching on to her meaning.
I wonder if the likelihood of being cast as friends is more likely in a homosexual relationship, especially between two young women? It feels invalidating because it devalues what we have with each other: a committed relationship and love. Maybe if it happened only once or twice, it wouldn't bother me. And maybe it's only because I'm new to this kind of a relationship that it bothers me now. But every time someone assumes we're "just friends", I want to impulsively jump on top of Christa and make out with her furiously just to prove a point. She calmly slides an arm around my shoulder while we're walking in busy downtown are of the city where we live when groups of young guys are around to stop them from cat-calling or hitting on me (which I greatly appreciate because… REALLY?!) I wonder if other couples experience a similar challenge and I wonder if it bothers them like it bothers me?
Through these experiences I've come to see the lens that I, too, used to share with the large majority of heterosexuals. This is the view that defines heteronormativity: that most people on the planet are straight. My sexual orientation—prior to being with Christa was straight—was reflected back to me by most mainstream media, my friends, social networks, advertising and so on. So I assumed most people were also straight because that's what my world reflected back to me. But now… ah, now that I am on the "other side", labeling myself as queer feels most fitting right now, I feel genuine enthusiasm when I see other gay couples around, inter-racial couples and so on, just anyone else in the minority. I feel more at ease somehow in a more diverse world. It tells me in a way that our love is legitimate, recognized and valid — no one's going to mistake me for Christa's friend when we're married for God's sake. It's not a competition—it's simply a desire to be seen as equal.
My call to action: to observe one's assumptions around the relationship between two people and remain as open and curious as your mind can possible hold space for. Aim for a space of openness that is roughly as wide and clear as the sky. With a space so large, you'll have enough room to consider all the options under the moon!