Earlier this week when we met with our realtor to make an offer on a new house, he asked us to sign a disclosure form about the customer vs. client and realtor-to-client agency agreement. “Didn’t we sign this already?” we asked, confused.
He grew unaccountably flustered. “Well, you signed it,” he told my wife, and then turned to me, “but you didn’t. I didn’t think it mattered, because I assumed you were sisters.”
We get this all the time, and we are not alone. It happened twice in one recent day to my college roommate and her partner, who are expecting twins this summer. The author of this article on same-sex parenting says this mistake happens so often, she has developed an acronym to describe her response: EOTS — Explaining of the Situation.
Somehow, I thought our Situation would become more obvious to outsiders once we had a baby, but clearly that is not the case. It’s not as if Penelope and I look all that much alike. She’s skinny, I’m… not; she’s got straight light-brown hair, I’ve got thick, wavy dark hair; our facial features are different, our bone structure is different, our mannerisms are different. If there is a resemblance (apart from the fact that we’re both white girls), we don’t see it. Yet the question persists, whenever we meet new people, and even the presence of an adorable toddler who calls us “Ma” and “Mumma” hasn’t helped to correct the misconception.
Generally when we correct people, they react pretty well. New England is, after all, the birth place of civil unions and a stronghold of marriage equality. Gay families have been in the news here for so long that we’ve lost our novelty. Ten years ago when the civil union legislation first passed in Vermont, the rednecks festooned the Green Mountains with “Take Back Vermont” signs (something which amused and infuriated Penelope, whose family first arrived here in the 1700s, well before Vermont was even a state), but that kind of open homophobia is rarely encountered now. I’m sure most of the people who owned those signs haven’t changed their tune, but they’ve been shamed into silence. I know we’re a lot better off than lesbian couples all over the country, for whom the safest answer to the question, “Are you sisters?” is probably, often, “Yes.”
Yet just because we don’t have to brace ourselves for a possible confrontation every time we answer the question doesn’t mean we don’t resent having to answer it, and I’ll tell you why. I bet 99% of the people who ask it don’t think we’re sisters at all. They know exactly what we are, but they’re embarrassed to ask outright, and they think asking if we’re sisters is somehow more polite.
Think about it. You see two women out together, perhaps sharing a meal or a drink, or walking down the street, or sitting next to each other at the airport. If they’re not touching, you probably don’t make any assumptions at all. Maybe they’re friends or coworkers, maybe it’s girls night out, maybe they’re strangers who happen to be walking in the same direction or waiting for the same flight. You don’t know, and you don’t need to know.
Now, what if you see two women together, and something about them tips you off to the fact that they are more to each other? Maybe they stand a little too close, or finish each others’ sentences. Maybe it’s something about the way they look at each other, or the way they refer to themselves as “we,” or the fact that the kid with them calls them both “Mom.” Suddenly, you’re dying to know exactly what their relationship is! You think you know, but geez, you’ve never met real live lesbians before! You don’t want to offend them by saying the wrong thing (what if they’re dangerous?!), but you just have to know. So you ask, “Are you sisters?,” because that’s a safe question, right?
One of these days, I’m going to design a t-shirt for the dyke set to wear when we leave the house together that says, “Trust Your Instincts: We’re Not Sisters.” It will spare us all so many awkward conversations.