Questions are a great conversation starter, and they’re also a great conversation ender.
Throughout my life as a queer woman I’ve been subject to many strange questions at even stranger times.
Questions about when I came out, if my parents accept me, if someone can watch me have sex, or if I’m trying to look like a man have all been thrown to me randomly at the bus stop, in the workplace, and at parties.
While questions are an important part of understanding each other across social, cultural, and experiential divides, we should still be held accountable when our questions cause offence or harm to others.
And we should be open to examining ‘why’.
There is a particularly barbed question which has never simply bounced off my queer skin like the other, aforementioned questions do.
The first time I heard it caught me off guard. I was 22 and embarking on a road trip of the USA with my new girlfriend, who was personally showing me her favourite city, Seattle, as our first stop.
On a quiet afternoon, after spending the morning exploring downtown, we visited the Space Needle and I held my girlfriend’s hand excitedly as we walked up to the security checkpoint stationed in front of the elevators.
The guard manning the station was American-friendly, with a genuine smile and greeting that made it seem like he was inviting us into his own home rather than into an iconic Washington landmark.
He sighted our tickets, looked inside our bags, and gave us the OK.
Then, as we made to continue, he held up his hand and said, “Wait, I wanted to ask. Are you two sisters?”
I balked. And then, I was angry. I don’t really remember what I said, but it was definitely sour. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand and we quickly walked to the elevator. The whole ride up, I was dripping in unexpected shame and embarrassment about my identity.
The ‘siblings question’ became a painful blight in those early days of my relationship with my girlfriend. It crept into our lives in unconscious and toxic ways.
We began worrying about our hair or outfits being too similar, and we would go out of our way to change our appearances because other people were making us feel so uncomfortable about the way we looked together.
It became an unfair stressor to feeling accepted, even when we were with friends and family. It’s a situation that many same-sex couples have to face.
Recently, in a study published in The Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, Dr. David Frost and colleagues interviewed 120 same-sex couples to examine the pressures they experienced while in a relationship.
The study found 17 stressors that were uniquely linked to the same-sex relationship experience.
These include stressors such as worrying over service refusal in the wedding industry, feeling the need to rent apartments with two bedrooms to be able to pretend a partner is a roommate if needed, and having to correct the frequent assumption that a partner is a sibling or friend.
Unfortunately, in a society that prioritises and validates heterosexual relationships over queer ones, the emotional impact of this sibling assumption/question for queer people is a heavy one.
This is because it actively works to invalidate same-sex relationships by trying to reduce them to something less-queer and more ‘innocent’ (friendly or familial), which is honestly as gross as it is homophobic.
Additionally, many same-sex couples encounter this assumption/question when they barely look alike.
Take a glance at any celebrity, ‘Could Be Siblings’ list online, do you see Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi somewhere there? Even though the only physical features they arguably share are blonde hair and blue eyes?
Similarly, my girlfriend and I only share brown hair and short height. We have different facial features, side profiles, eye colours, body shapes, skin tones, mannerisms, and even accents (American and Australian).
Soon after the incident in Seattle, my girlfriend and I began posting pictures of our relationship and travels on social media.
There were photos of us smiling side-by-side at state borders between Oregon and California, Nevada and Arizona, and at every national park along the way.
Unfortunately, comments and replies on those photos often included at least one person who thought it was appropriate to say how cute it was we looked like sisters, or how we were so similar we looked like twins, adorable!
This was both confusing and upsetting.
It seemed like people were so uncomfortable with our relationship they felt they had to devalue it by equating us to sisters, signed with a smile or love emoji.
Because you know, no offence.
While my girlfriend and I managed to educate our family and friends online about why those comments were hurtful, in person plenty of people were still happy to continue approaching us as we went about our day to enquire about our literal relation status.
No matter how different we made our appearances, people still made the wrong assumption about our relationship. They looked at us and couldn’t see a couple — like we didn’t meet their requirements.
Every time it hurt more and caused more anxiety. But eventually we learned to fight it together, rather than let it ruin us from within.
Earlier this year, I was contemplating better ways to combat the sibling question, when I realised something.
It’s weird because, in an opposite kind of way, women frequently have to deal with being assumed the girlfriend or partner of whichever man is closest to them at any given moment. Which is super annoying and uncomfortable.
I’ve experienced it, and friends of mine have often joked that if they’re within a kilometre of any man then people will decide they’re together.
(Side note: this lack of value regarding women’s existence as individual people, separate from men, is a whole other article.)
Meanwhile, in my relationship with my girlfriend our status is always on display:
From the way we hold hands, place arms around waists, stay close, and kiss cheeks; to the way we talk and use affectionate names; to the way we mind for one another by opening doors and holding each other’s items.
Yet, the intimacy of our interactions is time and time again equated to the closeness of siblings.
Not even friends.
It’s honestly a complete reveal, consciously or subconsciously, of which relationships the asker values more: heterosexual (even when forced), or please-not-homosexual (even when completely consenting and clear).
To this day I have never not called someone out on it, even when it isn’t the best choice for my personal safety. Mostly because I’m angry and I’m tired, and hey, I’m a dyke in Docs for a reason.
But this isn’t an issue only queer people face. The ‘sibling question’ (with some variations) also haunts interabled relationships, disabled relationships, couples of colour, and other minorities.
It’s rooted in unnecessary assumptions, discomfort, and hate, and people don’t always realise it.
But going out of the way to confront a same-sex couple, an interabled couple, a disabled couple, or a couple of colour, who are holding hands on the street, who are at dinner, who are on the train, who are on a tour, who are at a concert, who are simply existing near each other and enjoying their lives, and interrupting them to ask the demeaning, hurtful question, “Are you two siblings?” is just awful.
Regardless of intentions.