Beyond the U-Haul: How Lesbian Relationships Are Changing

Just like straight and gay-male couples, women are seeking out new ways to commit.

Hanna Rosin posted a piece at Slate's Double X last week about gay male couples and monogamy--or rather their lack of it. Rosin said that some gay couples' resistance to monogamy might be a model that hetero couples could learn from. "This kind of openness may infect the straight world," she wrote, "and heterosexual couples may actually start to tackle the age-old problem of boring monogamous sex." She based her points on Liza Mundy's recent Atlantic cover story on why gay couples are in many ways happier than straight couples, as well as on recent data showing gay male couples are not the most monogamous people on the planet. A rebuttal by Nathaniel Frank took the data from both sources to task: "None of these sources show that 'most gay couples aren't monogamous,'" he wrote.

As a lesbian, though, I was left wondering where the gay women's voices and data were in this discussion about evolving relationship norms. Lesbians have their own coupling customs--some influenced by a quite traditional idea of family, and some that make married monogamy seem pretty great.

"U-Hauling"--packing up and moving in together after knowing each other for just three months--is perhaps the greatest tradition (and punchline) in lesbian culture. This "urge to merge" had a basis in practicality in the '50s and early '60s, when gay couples had to remain in the shadows. Back then, if you had the good fortune to make a family, you held onto it. It was a marriage. In the lesbian world, serial monogamy was safe, and also fulfilling. Women can have kids, too, so sometimes lesbians had those.

This history is now well chronicled by efforts such as Brooklyn's Lesbian Herstory Archives, and before that in steamy pulp novels like the "Beebo Brinker" series by cult writer Ann Bannon, which offered insight into the dynamics of relationships in The Life. Even in the lesbian world in the mid-20th century, gender roles were clear, and a butch and a femme made a family that looked at least somewhat like others'. In general, the butches tended to work, with blue-collar labor offering somewhat steady employment for masculine-presenting women (unions in particular offered some protection from harassment and firing). The femmes worked, too, and also kept the home and butch spirits up. Still, things were a bit more egalitarian than in hetero marriages of the time; if you're both raised female, you know innately why the politics of running a household matter. In that sense, Mundy's cover story would have held up even then.

I've recently revisited Stone Butch Blues, by the incredible activist and historian Leslie Feinberg. That novel came out 20 years ago and revealed a history of how dykes lived before Stonewall. The book contains what might be the first literary mention of U-Hauling, when Jess, the butch main character, meets Theresa, who will eventually wear her ring:

After dinner I helped her wash the dishes and clean up. Then, by the sink, we moved close to each other. ... Our tongues discovered a silent language to express our needs. Once we started, we never wanted to stop. That was how it began.

Within a month we rented a U-Haul trailer and moved into a new apartment together in Buffalo.

Later eras would continue to perpetuate the U-Haul as a wink-nudge measure of lesbian commitment. Early '90s comic Lea DeLaria, who billed herself as "That Fucking Dyke," made it into an actual joke on The Arsenio Hall Show: "What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul." There was a Friends episode where a woman who loved Rachel since college arrived at her apartment with the orange trailer after a misinterpreted kiss.

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Shauna Miller is senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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