I can say without reservation that gender roles in heterosexual relationships are more clearly defined than those in homosexual ones. Certainly heterosexual relationship roles are less distinctly male/female than they once were, but an inherent gender distinction and its accompanying implications still exist. And this distinction simply isn’t present in homosexual relationships. There is no one person to approach another, to court another, to make the first move, etc. This makes for an occasionally confusing, often obscured, and what I think to be fairly fun relationship dynamic that homosexuals can claim for their own.

Steve Du Bois

Let’s ponder together, shall we, some of the relationship givens, or so-called givens, in heterosexual relationships that are not-so-given in homosexual relationships. First, who asks whom on a date in a homosexual relationship? And what implications does this request have? Does the asker necessarily pay for dinner, or do the two go Dutch and split the bill? Whereas the heterosexual male might be expected to initiate and pay for the first date, homosexuals can claim no such expectations. The lack of a dominant figure breeds confusion.

Next, how far does a simple, dominant act like paying for dinner go? That is, once one homosexual does something typically male or female, how wed is he/she to such dominant or passive relationship behaviors? If I lead my boyfriend (via gyrating hips) while dancing, do I lead my boyfriend (also via gyrating hips) in bed? If he buys the condoms and enforces contraception, am I exempt from future, similar responsibilities because that’s become the role he fills in the relationship? Again, because of a lack of gender distinctions, there is an uncertainty contained within the actions and behaviors of each person in the relationship. But such confusion and uncertainty aren’t always bad things.

There is much to be said for not having gender constraints on actions within a relationship. I feel damn good about falling asleep in my boyfriend’s arms … sometimes. Other times, I want to hold him until he dozes off. Sometimes I want to initiate and direct physical contact, while sometimes I want nothing more than to be complacent. This muddling of relationship roles makes for an interesting and lively dynamic.

To muddle, to mix things up, is to avoid falling into typical relationship roles. Perhaps one partner asks another on a date initially, and because it is only fair, he or she pays. The next date, however, is organized and funded by the other partner. Ideally there is a fair exchange of phone calls and niceties between the two so that no one feels typified. Surely, these things are striven for in all relationships. Perhaps, however, they are easier to attain in homosexual ones because of the inherent gender equivalence.

Let’s fast forward to a hypothetical gay relationship, specifically a male one (because those are the ones I’m good at), to the fun part … when it gets sexual. Who the hell puts what where? Does the one, if one exists, who has been taking the dominant relationship and social roles automatically become the top? And if one is the top, does this necessarily make the other guy the bottom?

Allow me to pause for an addendum to clarify for those who are confused by my gay jargon (and because I’ve always wanted to explain the logistics of gay sex in a public forum): the top plays the active, insertive role during sex (He does the poking). Usually (and stereotypically), we associate this with dominance and thus with the partner who plays the more masculine role in the relationship. The bottom, conversely, plays the sexually passive, receptive role during sex (He takes it up the butt). The stereotypical associations with bottoms include being effeminate and well, more gay than the top. Incidentally, one who mixes things up, who practices both topping and bottoming, is deemed versatile.

So, in heterosexual relationships, there is obviously one insertive and one receptive sexual partner (unless there is some funky shit going on there, which is cool with me). But what about homosexual relationships? Is the ideal to have established sexual roles? Or is it more fun to, again, mix things up a little?

The danger in establishing specific sexual roles is that they might pervade — intrude upon — other aspects of a relationship. For example, your used-to-be-straight friend who came out to you and then became ultra-gay … he’s probably discovered the joys of bottoming and has since adopted the stereotypical personality traits of a bottom — effeminate, flamboyant, overdramatic and the like. His assumption of a sexual relationship role has infected his social relationship role. Similarly, if I were definitively the top in a relationship, I might form a masculinity complex — an internal overemphasis on being dominant — whereas if I were absolutely a bottom, I might form a passivity complex — an internal overemphasis on being submissive. Such things occur more frequently in heterosexual relationships where dominance roles are predefined by gender distinction.

Homosexual relationships, then, differ from heterosexual ones both interpersonally and sexually. I make this general claim because there surely are heterosexual relationships that aren’t as genderized as I’m claiming, just as there are homosexual relationships that are completely genderized. Although neither type of relationship has to be genderized, heterosexual ones are more often just that. Conversely, homosexual relationships, because of the inherent lack of genderization, allow for more openness in relationship role interpretation, if the roles exist at all. While this is sometimes confusing, it’s more fun than anything.

And that’s the bottom’s line.


Steve has missed you and your e-mails!  Reassure him that you’re still interested, or disinterested, at duboiss@umich.edu.

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