Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gender Bending Couple Shocks African Town

When Jeremy was first coming to visit me in St Thomas, my friends liked him a lot. They told me what a great guy he was, and always invited him to be the sole guy at girls' night out and stuff -- but one day, a friend of mine told me, "It's cool that you and Jeremy are going out, but you do realize that he's gay, don't you?" No matter what I said, I couldn't convince her that a man who can talk about feelings, cry at a movie, and doesn't consider fixing a leaky faucet the extent of his commitment to housekeeping could also be a heterosexual.

Interactions like that, even amongst people who are from essentially the same culture as me, remind me that our relationship doesn't really fall within the bounds of the stereotypical, gender role-wise. Here in Isinya, it's more pronounced for both of us. I think I am the only woman in town who wears trousers. When I wore a dress the other day, I was greeted with "you look smart!" and nearly audible sighs of relief from teachers, who just seemed kind of unsettled, rather than actually offended, by my insistence on dressing like a man from the waist down -- like seeing some hapless foreigner wandering your town with their shoes on the wrong feet or mittens on their ears or something.

The other day Jeremy went to pick up some groceries at the stalls of the "mamas" in town; when our friend Jacky at the Mpesa phone store saw him, she left her store -- you know, to keep him company during his errands, giving him helpful pointers like "put your yoghurt in your bag -- don't just carry it around in your hand," by which we later realized she meant to save him from the embarrassment of being a man buying foodstuffs (other than a side of goat).

Last night we brought dinner over to eat at Jacky's, where she lives at the back of the phone kiosk. We were talking about our one month anniversary, and responding to her question about how our marriage is "going," when a couple of male friends of hers stopped by. I was saying how my wonderful husband brings me coffee in the morning, and we almost made the guys barf up their nyama choma. More than disgusted, they just seemed... well, baffled. David, a Masai, said "in my culture, a man never cooks for his wife -- even if she is sick, he can call his mother and have her do it. If my father saw me in a kitchen, he would ask me if I had lost my mind." And my wonderful husband said, "if my dad saw me in the kitchen he'd ask 'What's for dinner?'" David told us that in his culture, a man's wife is like another child, which seems to me like it would just be sort of boring. Who wants to have only other children to talk to? All in all, it was a really interesting conversation -- no rancor, no problem (which actually is hakuna matata in Swahili). It was just some people chatting about the different ways of seeing a thing like marriage. As we walked home arm in arm in the spectacular moonlight, talking and laughing together, I felt so grateful that we got to be who we are -- husband and wife because we are partners and friends first.


  1. I'm not sure if Jeremy's mouth/chin make the rabbit look small or if the rabbit makes the mouth/chin look big.

    My experience with Indian men's relationships with and treatment of their wives was similar. Staying at a bed and breakfast type place in Coorg, a jungly, mountainous region near Mysore, I was laughing at a melodramatic Indian soap opera on TV in the dining room one morning when the owner said (of his wife and some women that were helping her) "Ah yes, the womenfolk in the kitchen like these shows." Which... isn't exactly sexist since the "womenfolk" were in fact in the kitchen at that time. But the way he said it, it was as if "in the kitchen" wasn't just a modifying phrase but was like ALWAYS tacked onto the end of "womenfolk."

  2. The more I have traveled, the more I have noticed that attitudes on gender and marriage outside the US represent at times more extreme and generally more externalized (that is, not suppressed or disavowed) versions of the same ideas. It was especially after I popped out the sprog that the neo-50s underbelly (with a few twists) of western culture was fully exposed. All of the sudden the world was full of stay-at-home moms with fancy degrees whose husbands worked fulltime and were "too tired" to do much childcare, and also moms who went back to work really quickly who still had to do the brunt of the domestic and childcare work when they got home at night. Now, granted, this speaks much more to our disgusting employment practices and woeful lack of institutional support for families in the way of good affordable childcare than to what we want, but in a so-called democracy, aren't these things supposed to be reflective of national values? The fact is, we don't value domestic equality, gender equality, sexual equality, or racial equality much in our apparently post-feminist, post-homophobic, post-racial world. Blergh. In my new mother's circle, I was the only work-at-home mom co-parenting with a work-at-home dad. To make this work, we've had no outside childcare apart from nursery school; we've never even hired a babysitter, relying instead on grandparents. Now, we've found that this situation has helped us more or less maintain the equal power dynamic that we're comfortable with, but what has really surprised me is how people say stuff about how incredibly lucky I am because of how involved my husband is. I mean, sure, I think I'm really lucky too. The man I married is a great husband and father. But, um, that's why I married him, n'est ce pas? I don't see why he should be nominated for the Nobel Prize because he changes his fair share of diapers. Isn't it his job to be a good husband and father, just as it's my job to be a good wife and mother? Where's my Nobel Prize?

  3. Oh I miss you guys! It is scary to see the way a lot of this world views women. And the world could definitely use more Jeremys in it. A word about the relief you got when people saw you in a dress. It was explained to me that the hip/ butt/ thigh area is the sexual area of a woman and pants can really show that off. wearing tighter pants in those cultures would be like wearing a very low cut blouse with your tits hanging out in our culture. So it might not be that they see you as gender bending, they may just see you as wearing inappropiate clothing. Like club clothes to church.

  4. meanwhile in Tibetan culture men cook all the time. and women occasionally have three husbands...