Beyond the U-Haul: How Lesbian Relationships Are Changing

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

The other end of the U-Haul "joke," of course, is the good old "lesbian bed death" joke. Since neither of you is naturally jacked up on testosterone, the story goes, those quickies that keep straight couples together even when they barely see or like one other aren't as easy to conjure. Doom is certain! You'll end up like like sisters, ugh.

But wait! A study published last year found that almost half of lesbians my age in long-term, committed relationships went at it for 45 minutes or more the last time they had sex together, compared to around 16 percent of straight females. 8.9 percent of us were at it for more than two hours, compared to 1.9 percent of straight ladies. So, there's some science to why so many women have dug monogamy: Not only do we know where our stuff is, we do it for longer, and women in general get better at it with age.

I'm 35, and the generation right behind mine knew the U-Haul model of long-term relationships well. They heard stories from older couples, from women in the bars who talked about the old butch-femme days, of marriages that lasted 10 years, 20 years, that sometimes ended in divorce--which, to add insult to injury, wasn't even needed since no one was "really" married, anyway. That '80s generation had the added benefit of the women's movement, the early gay rights movement, and Rubyfruit Jungle. Those were the gay women who had a profile public enough for my generation to actually see, sometimes even reflected in pop culture. Alison Bechdel's cult comic serial Dykes to Watch Out For ran for almost two decades in alternative papers like Funny Times while the "Gay '90s" unfolded. As a closeted Catholic-school teenager, that's where I learned what lesbian relationships looked like. DTWOF is where I saw my first lesbian family and my first U-Haul.

I can only speak for my own observations about gay women, but I do agree with Rosin's assertion that the current crop of young gays--women included--are freer with causal relationships and even the idea of responsible, respectful polyamory. Janet Hardy's The Ethical Slut came out in 1997, and by the time we were in college we were fluent in Dan Savage, being GGG, and the idea of monogamishness. The generation now in their twenties is even more attuned to this. There are certainly inspiring, committed poly relationships in my circles. With everything changing over the past decade (and few weeks), maybe the future model for lesbian families will look different. Maybe it will be a mom, mama and kids. Or two moms and a donor dad. Or an intentional family of several partners. At the same time, more lesbian couples than ever are raising kids together. I've been to approximately 607 lesbian weddings over the past three years. I know a LOT now about where to find quality sperm. There is something to be said--and Mundy said it well--about the wisdom gay women have to offer straight couples in terms of what works in a marriage. Now that we have a few more rights in terms of marriage ourselves, perhaps we will slow down on trying to get there so fast.

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Shauna Miller is senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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