The Lurking Gender Conditioning that Could

It’s been a month, dear reader, since I posted. I proposed marriage to my partner.

And they said yes.

And I forgot they were supposed to answer at all so that surprised me.

And it was wonderful.

And the moon covered the sun so they both could see.

And my heart is very full.

Please do me the honor of taking me at my word when I say that I’m very, very happy to be marrying the love of my life. But there were also a handful of difficult moments in the wake of our engagement, and I intend to shake some sunlight into them with this post.

We’re both women in my relationship, so the gender dynamics barely occurred to me as I was planning. After all, I wasn’t a woman proposing to a man, and if I were, who really cares about that stuff anyway? But norms are complicated. Proposing to my partner unearthed some subtle gender conditioning I didn’t even know I had.

I was never the type to imagine my future wedding. I didn’t while away sunny afternoons thinking about my dream proposal, and I wasn’t expecting to be so shocked that I was the proposer and not the proposee. As it happens, without my knowledge or consent, I had been prepped throughout the course of my life to accept, rather than give, a proposal.

The most startling reaction I had was that after I proposed, I couldn’t bear to be congratulated by the friends and acquaintances who were nearby. I kept whispering to my love that I felt like I had made a scene. As many feminists have said more eloquently than I can, women are taught to fear taking up too much space. In the moments after our proposal when I floated back to Earth, I transformed into a giant. Every word I said seemed to echo, and I felt like I had a hot spotlight burning me. My brain was already screaming that this experience wasn’t correct. I wasn’t allowed to play this role, and certainly not in public. It wasn’t until we were home together much later that evening that I was able to pick at the knot my defenses had made of me. We watched a romantic comedy about two older lesbians on a rambling road trip to get married, and I sobbed until my eyes ached.

We couldn’t let go of each other’s hands to walk into our offices the next day. At least I couldn’t. I had to rip myself apart from them. The being-engaged was easy. The telling people was unexpectedly difficult.

I soon became very sensitive about our rings. They’re perfect and they’re exactly what my person needed. They want to wear a simple, single band after we’re married, so I bought us both for-now rings, plain sterling bands that look like tiny strings tied around our fingers. After colleagues and acquaintances started to realize we were engaged, I became shifty and defensive about their plainness and their moderate price. A few people made this worse. When I told them the news, they looked at my finger and then quickly looked away.

They were supposed to say “ohh, so sparkly, tell me everything about the proposal,” and I was supposed to wave my hand against the light and gush. That’s how this works, says my repugnantly stubborn engaged-person-lizard-brain. As it happens, politely averting your eyes is a quick and simple way to make your conversation partner feel ashamed. No one intended this. We just don’t have the words. I didn’t have the words either. It was all of us.

We all lost the script.

I’ll tell you what we both loved — watching people tremor with a tiny shock at the news that it was me who asked this question. My person is not femme. They use they/them and she/her pronouns. They’re perfect, and I don’t need them to be any more labeled than they are, but if they decide to identify any differently, I’m here to support that. Me, I like glitter. I have a hot pink streak hiding under my bangs, and I wear polka-dot party dresses when I feel sassy. So every single person we know assumed they would propose to me. Proposing to them created a delicious microscopic rift in societal expectation. We peer through it and remember that neither of us are men and these traditions and expectations can fuck right off. It’s glorious, really.

In the end, this was an interesting reminder that all of this takes work. Gender conditioning seeped into my mind, insidious, like a slow flood from a dripping faucet. But we have to see it in order to fight it. Dismantling heteronormativity, gender conditioning, white privilege, sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, and transphobia means staring yourself down and forcing yourself to admit what you had been thinking.

Ok. Let’s do this.

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