The One Question My Wife & I Hate

Over the holidays last year, my wife and I celebrated our honeymoon in California wine country. We indulged in delicious wine (and food). We hiked from the redwoods to the coast, and jogged in the mountains. Christmas included a midnight candlelight service in a beautiful old church in downtown Napa. For New Year’s Eve, we experienced the heart of San Francisco dining in one of the world’s best restaurants. We also got asked time and again whether we are sisters. Actually, we’re married.

My wife and I married in August of last year. Like many, we delayed our honeymoon for scheduling and financial reasons. We’ve heard the “sisters question” our whole relationship. But now that we are spouses, married in the Episcopal Church (recently sanctioned by the worldwide Anglican Communion for their performance of same sex marriages), it sits much more awkwardly. We get asked on elevators, in grocery store checkout lines, and at restaurants. Well-meaning congregants ask us on Sundays at church.

Strangely, we only vaguely resemble each other. We are both tall with brown hair that rests about shoulder length, hers a little longer than mine. But she has blue eyes and I have green eyes, and our facial structures and builds are quite different. In case you’re wondering, the question sounds quite earnest and not like an attempt to decipher our true relationship. Our friends find the question absurd.

So why do so many people think we are sisters, and why do so many people ask?

The cause is as much our gender as our sexuality. When some people see two women together, they have a need to place us in context. Two men hanging out don’t need to be placed. But two women need to fit somewhere in the social order. I told my 71-year-old dad about the sisters question. He said never in his life was he asked if he was brothers with a man, even when he was with his brothers!

It’s as though we’re incompletes who need mooring to a familial relationship, or perhaps preferably, a man. Any woman who sits alone at a bar knows she’s eyed for opportunity or pity, while solo guys don’t get a second thought. Picture a tuxedo-clad man walking by himself down a city sidewalk. We think he is on his way to a formal event and concern ourselves no more. Now picture a woman in a formal dress doing the same. We may wonder why she’s alone.

Two women is likewise considered off-kilter by some. Waiters at nice places often don’t know what to make of our party of two, which sometimes feels like a second-class experience.

Understanding that same sex couples are still a novelty for many (I know most of our wedding guests had never attended a same-sex ceremony), the possibility that we're married may never occur to our curious questioners. But even if their wonder is understandable, something more makes them actually ask us.

It’s a fact of life that people feel more entitled to comment upon women than men. During our trip, a man walked up to us in a restaurant while we were eating and said, “I just want to tell you you’re beautiful, both of you.” He acted as if he'd bestowed upon us a gift for which we should be quite grateful: his inherently valid judgment and commentary. Compliments are nice, but the world assumes women are walking suggestion boxes.

So when the hotel cleaning lady, Uber driver, and guy in line behind us at the store want to know if we’re sisters, they presume they can ask. Feeling obliged out of expected (female) politeness, we smile and answer “No, we’re not sisters." Depending on the circumstances, sometimes we add, "Actually, we're married."

Telling women things like they should smile more, or that they look tired (which a stranger on the elevator told me my first week back at work), are judgments people express all too freely. Near the end of our trip, a man killed two birds with one elevator ride: during the 20-second trip from the third floor to the first floor of our hotel, he both asked if we were sisters and told me I should smile.

I’m shrugging off this question so much my shoulders are tired. We're both full-fledged, capable, independent adults who should be able to live our lives without people feeling the need to try to figure out where we belong. We are where we belong.

Images: Jane C. Kang, Rachael Brant