Annukka Lahti
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Affective intimacies of gender assemblages
Closeness and distance in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships

The chapter explores the significance of gender in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships. It begins with an observation of the closeness and easiness of certain LGBTQ+ women’s relationships, while others struggle with unequal approaches to sharing childcare and domestic responsibilities in ways that strikingly resemble the gendered conventions of heterosexual relationships. Arguing that the framework of gendered conventions is limited, I analyse gender as becoming in and through affective assemblages. The chapter thus shifts the focus from the human-centred paradigm that would approach gender as an identity that ‘belongs to a person’, to a more nuanced approach where multiple elements and affective intimacies of a gender assemblage can be identified. For the purposes of the chapter, I analyse two data sets: interviews with LGBTQ+ women who have experienced a recent relationship break-up, and a longitudinal set of interviews with bisexual women and their variously gendered (ex)partners. My analysis shows how the accumulating affective intimacies of a gender assemblage, which are a co-constitution of many elements – e.g. sexual desire, cultural norms and ideas about gender, (shared) interests, events and material spaces – have an ability to bring certain gendered bodies closer to one another while pushing others away from one another. The chapter also shows how equalities and inequalities emerge in temporally shifting ways in LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages and how this is entangled with closeness and distance in their relationships.

I think that sharing everyday life with a woman is somehow very easy going and smooth, being together and separate, it intertwines much more easily [than with a man]. Communicating is easier and it is easier to stay on board [with] what the other person is going to do, wants and wishes, the communication is somehow open. (Interview with a bisexual woman, 2014)

When women1 (including cis, trans and genderqueer women) who I have interviewed talk about their past or current relationships with women, there is often closeness and intimacy – a kind of easiness – present in the female relationships. In the extract above, Jenny, who was married to a man at the time of the interview, talked about her past female relationship in longing terms. Minna, a lesbian woman, whose relationship with her female partner had ended recently due to the partners’ conflicting childbearing intentions, described the relationship: ‘Our relationship was in every way very good and balanced.’ This kind of easiness did not exclude LGBTQ+ women from depicting problems and difficulties in their relationships, and often they did, particularly when I interviewed them about relationships that had ended.2 Yet, those women who had been in relationships with men often contrasted relationships with women with their past or current relationships with men, wherein they spoke of a certain kind of distance between themselves and their male (ex-)partners and ‘being in different worlds’. Women and non-binary interviewees who had mainly had relationships with women saw more variation between relationships. These observations evoke many questions and thoughts about the significance of gender in relationships between women.

Another theme that raised questions of how gender matters in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships was how they built families, took care of their children and shared childcare and domestic responsibilities with their women partners before and after their separations. Often when a child was born to a couple or one of the partners yearned for a child, it could either enhance the closeness and proximity between the partners or create distance between them. Sometimes the arrival of a child also meant the arrival of unequal ways of sharing childcare and domestic responsibilities in a relationship. While previous studies have demonstrated that in general same-sex couples, especially female couples, share household chores, childcare and emotion work more equally than mixed-sex couples (e.g. Brewster, 2016; Gotta et al., 2011; Umberson et al., 2015), this does not happen automatically in all LGBTIQ+ relationships (Kelly and Hauck, 2015). This might concern particularly those LGBTIQ+ people’s relationships that have ended, as is the case in this study. Often sharing of housework and childcare are analysed from the point of view of how LGBTIQ+ people challenge or reproduce unequal gendered conventions of heterosexual relationships (Jurva and Lahti, 2019; Kelly and Hauck, 2015). However, I argue that the framework of gendered conventions is limited. Unequal gendered practices in female couples do not necessarily mean that one of the partners would carry a greater responsibility of every domestic sphere: e.g. childcare, household chores and supporting one’s partner emotionally. Rather there are practices that resemble hierarchical gendered conventions of heterosexual relationships, but they are mixed and matched between partners in various ways. In this chapter I utilise the Deleuzian concept of ‘assemblage’, which enables me to develop the line of inquiry of gendered conventions, as I seek to account for variety and change in how gender matters in female relationships (Coleman and Ringrose, 2013).

Assemblage theory initiates a consideration of multiplicity, not just in terms of multiple gender identities, but in opening up thinking of gender as a radically open and unpredictable process (Linstead and Pullen, 2006; Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). Instead of seeing gender as an identity residing within an individual, gender is thought of as emerging out of the dynamic encounters of multiple elements and relations that come together in an assemblage (Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). This kind of conceptualisation challenges the human-centred paradigm of conceptualising gender and shifts the focus to processes, entanglements and encounters between human and non-human elements (Bennet, 2010; Blackman, 2012; Kolehmainen and Juvonen, 2018; Lahti and Kolehmainen, 2020; Ringrose and Renold, 2014). Gender is seen as process of becoming across social, material, discursive, human and more-than-human worlds: it entangles different elements and relationships from partners and relationship dynamics to other involved people (friends, children, relatives etc.), from societal power relations and ideals (gendered conventions, relationship norms, heteronormativity, homo- and transphobia etc.) to non-human elements (gendered spaces, events, living/housing arrangements etc.). However, it is not only the elements that make up the multiplicity, but rather the relations between elements, which are essential for analysing assemblages (Coleman and Ringrose, 2013; Lahti and Kolehmainen, 2020).

Thinking of gender as a flexible assemblage illuminates the multiple affective intimacies that emerge when bodies meet in these complex configurations. Intimacy is not only seen as a feature of human relations, but rather affective intimacies are emergent qualities of the web of relations and interactions of many bodies and forces in the gender assemblages (Latimer and Gómez, 2019). My analysis will highlight how the closeness and distance between partners, as well the unjust ways of sharing childcare and housework, is an effect of multiple elements in a gender assemblage, which connects bodies, matter, affects, ideas and societal processes in various ways. In this chapter, I will pay special attention to the ways gendered bodies become intimate or are pushed away from one another as an effect of diverse elements coming together in dynamic gender assemblages.

Gender in LGBTIQ+ relationships: From lesbian psychology to gender as an assemblage

In the 2010s–2020s, gendered dynamics has not been a very popular topic in the research on LGBTIQ+ relationships. As a means to fight the stigmatisation of LGBTIQ+ relationships, the studies have often compared LGBTIQ+ relationships and mixed-sex relationships with an emphasis on how ‘similar’ LGBTIQ+ couples are to mixed-sex couples (e.g. Balsam et al., 2008; Goldberg and Garcia, 2015). Any differences between LGBTIQ+ and mixed-sex couples are usually explained by the minority stress and discrimination faced by LGBTIQ+ couples (Balsam et al., 2017; Frost and LeBlank, 2019). In Finland, which can be thought of as part of the LGBTIQ+-friendly, progressive Nordic countries (Ilmonen et al., 2017: 96), several legislative changes have been made since the year 2000 in order to improve the legal position of LGBTIQ+ people and their families, although at the time of writing (2021) it has been only four years since the Finnish Marriage Act became gender neutral (Act 234/1929). During the long and complex LGBTIQ+ struggle for recognition, appearing ‘just like heterosexuals’ has been a central means through which non-heterosexual desires and relational lives have been made intelligible (Warner, 2000; Lahti, 2015). While stressing the sameness to heterosexual couples’ norms, it has been difficult to articulate any difference from heterosexual relationships (Lahti, 2015). My previous study suggested that female couples sometimes downplay the positive aspects of their relationships, for example their very positive experiences of intimacy, sex, sharing housework and taking care of children, to appear as similar as possible to mixed-sex couples (Lahti, 2015).

In contrast, in lesbian psychology – a lesbian affirmative psychological research from the late 1970s onwards, which did not assume homosexual pathology and strived to counter discrimination and prejudice against lesbians (Ellis, 2015) – of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, the partners’ gender was used to explain both intimacy and conflict in lesbian relationships. It was thought that female couples were prone to be overly close and lack personal boundaries – which was referred to as ‘fusion’ – because the partners have been socialised as women (Laird, 2000; Causby, Lockhart, White and Greene, 1995). The notion of fusion in lesbian relationships was first problematised and later proved to be a false assumption (Ellis, 2015). It was pointed out that viewing lesbian relationships as fused revealed that these relationships were being evaluated through the gender stereotypes and standards of heterosexual relationships (Ellis, 2015; Laird, 2000; Frost and Eliason, 2014). Also, Frost and Eliason’s (2014) comparative study showed that lesbian couples are not more ‘fused’ than other couples. This shows that the characteristics that are culturally linked to a good relationship – spending time together, closeness and making decisions together – were seen as negative and pathological when they appeared in a female relationship (Greene, Causby and Miller, 1999).

Several studies show that female couples are often very satisfied with their relationships compared to mixed-sex couples, as found by a study in Finland for example (Aarnio et al., 2018; Gottman, Levenson, Gross et al., 2003; Gottman, Levenson, Swanson et al., 2003; Kurdek, 2008). This is often explained by the female couple’s assumed equality in sharing household chores, finances and childcare. Some studies also indicate that female couples’ communication and fighting skills might be better than those of mixed-sex couples (Gottman, Levenson, Gross et al., 2003; Gottman, Levenson, Swanson et al., 2003). Studies also show that women in heterosexual relationships do more emotion work than men, for example, work of taking care of others’ emotional needs, improving others’ well-being and maintaining harmonious relationships (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993; Strazdins and Broom, 2004). Umberson et al.’s study (2015), which included lesbian, gay and heterosexual couples, paid attention to emotion work in long-term relationships. The study found that emotion work – sharing feelings and supporting each other emotionally – was important to all women in the study regardless of their relationship form. In heterosexual relationships, men justified not doing emotion work by saying, for example, that they did not know what to do about the feelings that bothered their wives. On the contrary, in female couples both partners engaged in emotion work, by sharing and discussing emotions and supporting each other emotionally.

However, in the following I will explore how gender matters in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships with women, arguing that it is not only a matter of (hierarchical) gendered conventions – e.g. how the housework and childcare are shared between partners. Neither can it be reduced to assumptions of women’s good communication skills or ability to do emotion work in their relationships. My aim is to move beyond frameworks that mobilise the binary category of gender as a framework for understanding these relationships. Firstly, since the beginning of the 2000s there has been a multiplication of non-binary gender and trans* identities, and a diversification of sexualities beyond the binary categories of sex, gender and sexuality. Thinking of the diversified possibilities to identify with various gender identifies, it is not very simple to say who is ‘of the same gender’ and who is ‘of a different gender’, and is it only a narrow group of people that one can refer to with a notion, for example, of ‘same-sex female relationships’ or ‘lesbian relationships’. In this chapter, I will show that gender matters in LGBTIQ+ relationships in various ways that go beyond binary notions of gender and stereotypical ideas about female relationships. In order to map this idea, there is a need to depart from frameworks that reduce gender into individual human subjects, individual characteristics or as an identity that ‘belongs to a person’. Further, the lens of relational affect theories (Seyfert, 2012) complicates the analysis of gender, shedding light on the forms of constituting gender that might hide in the affective flow of ‘happening’ of everyday life – relationship events, scenes and experiences – where gender comes to matter (Stewart, 2007).

As Stephen Linstead and Alison Pullen (2006) note, any undertaking that strives to move beyond the binary thinking of gender initiates a consideration of multiplicity, and the way in which multiplicity is conceptualised has consequences for what kinds of possibilities of thinking about gender are opened up. I argue that the question is not only about the multiplication of gender identities, but rather that Deleuzo-Guattarian thinking opens up new ways of thinking about gender beyond identities. In the Deleuzo-Guattarian framework, gender is not seen as an identity that can be ‘possessed’ by an individual subject or something that resides in a particular gendered body (Linstead and Pullen, 2006; Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). Rather, gender is conceptualised as becoming in and through affective assemblages (Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020; Ringrose and Renold, 2014). In this framework, gender can be re-imagined as a non-personal ‘capacity’ assembled through the various elements that temporally come together in the dynamics of everyday life (see also Coffey, 2020; Fox and Alldred, 2021). Capacities are not inherent but emerge relationally as bodies interact with other bodies, things and ideas in an assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004; Fox and Alldred, 2021). The unique assembling of bodies increases or diminishes the affective capabilities of the bodies involved in a particular assemblage (Malins, 2004; Buchanan, 2015; Fox and Alldred, 2021).

In this chapter, I am particularly interested in how proximity and distance between partners emerge as an effect of multiple elements and relations of gender assemblages, often in temporally shifting ways (De Landa, 2006; Ringrose and Renold, 2014). Affective intimacies are emergent qualities of the webs of relations and connections in gender assemblages, which can entangle and disentangle elements that do good and give pleasure, but also elements that are problematic and can expose us to harm and pain (Kinnunen and Kolehmainen, 2019; Latimer and Gómez, 2019; Lahti, 2018, 2020). Although assemblages are dynamic and multiple, often there are the processes and elements assembled in certain ways, such as in gendered power dynamics, as well as in the harmonious and/or painful relationship dynamics that come together in relationships. By approaching gender as an assemblage, I explore the multiplying effects of various gender assemblages, and highlight their ongoing relational processes and shifting power dynamics.

Data and methodology

For the purposes of this chapter, I analyse two data sets: 1) thirty interviews with LGBTIQ+ people who have experienced a recent relationship break-up. Of the thirty interviewees, sixteen identified as women, one as a trans woman, and six said that their official gender was female. Yet those six who referred to this ‘official gender’ reflected their gender in various ways: for example, one of them identified as non-binary and had gone through a trans process, one identified as ‘gender-neutral’, one said that they didn’t see their gender as ‘100% female’ and one referred to expressing gender in varying ways. In this chapter, I mainly analyse these twenty-three interviewees and I refer to the interviewees as LGBTQ+ women. The four accounts of non-binary gendered interviewees and the interviews with three men are not excluded on the basis of their gender identities, but rather because the themes analysed in this chapter did not come up in their interviews. 2) The other data set is a longitudinal set of interviews, which consists of five (originally seven) couple interviews with bisexual women and their variously gendered partners, conducted in 2005, and eleven follow-up interviews conducted some ten years later in 2014–2015. Participants were aged twenty-two to forty-two at the time of the first interview, and thirty-two to fifty-two at the follow-up interview. By the time of the follow-up interviews, the majority of the couples interviewed in 2005 had separated, and most of them had new partners. Both sets of interviews were in-depth and conducted in Finnish cities and towns. Because of COVID-19 in 2020–2021, the last twenty-one separation interviews were conducted via Zoom. All interviews lasted between one and four hours. They were audio-recorded and transcribed.

Despite the data deriving largely from a separation study, it must be noted that in this particular study I’m not interested in finding the reasons for LGBTIQ+ people’s separations. Yet, one should be cautious when drawing conclusions about relationships based on portrayals of relationships that have ended. The stories might have been told from a specific affective register of a separated person – often angry, sad and disappointed, especially if the separation happened only a short time ago. As one bisexual interviewee said: ‘Maybe after ten years I can give a good synthesis about our relationship, what was good and what was bad in it. What one remembers depends a lot [on] the situation at hand, from which one remembers it. And here I am reminiscing [on] it as [a] quite recently separated [person].’ Yet, it must be noted that bisexual women, in this study in particular, portrayed their past relationships with women in a very positive light, even if those relationships had ended.

Instead of representing all of the themes present in the data, I focus on two themes in my analysis. These two themes show how proximity, distance and gender are entangled in various ways in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships: 1) the closeness and easiness of LGBTQ+ women’s relationships and 2) how the interviewees built families, took care of their children, shared childcare and domestic responsibilities before and after their separation. Inspired by Taina Kinnunen and Marjo Kolehmainen (2019), I analyse the two sets of interview data as an archive of material-semiotic experiences related to gender assembled in a certain way (see also Schuller, 2020). My analysis is detached from ideas that gender could be located in a certain gendered body, or that it would be ‘just a social construction’ (Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). Rather, I analyse it as a dynamic and changing assemblage, which conjoins various elements, multiple power relations and affective intimacies (Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). From a Deleuzian viewpoint, the methodological task is to identify these various elements and relations within an assemblage (Fox and Alldred, 2015). My aim is to shift the focus from the human-centred paradigm that would approach gender as pre-defined individual property, to a more nuanced approach wherein the multiple elements and affective effects of a gender assemblage can be identified. My analysis will show how the entangled elements and affective intimacies of gender assemblages can create proximity and distance between partners in temporally shifting ways. Instead of analysing only one element or dimension as determinant over others – for example, thinking that relationships are determined by partners’ genders – I pay attention to the multiple elements that come together in gender assemblages, shaping emerging affective intimacies, as well as equalities and inequalities in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships.

Accumulating affective intimacies in LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages

In this section I analyse gender assemblages of LGBTQ+ women, which emerge as a co-constitution of human and non-human elements such as sexual desire, past and current relationship experiences, gendered spaces, cultural ideas regarding masculinity and femininity and (shared) values and interests. I further analyse the multiple affective intimacies that emerge as an effect of the different elements and relations coming together in these gender assemblages.

Desire was an important element that brought women closer to other women as partners. Thinking with the Deleuzian notion of desire as productive and seeking (see Mazzei, 2013) it is possible to analyse the forces of desire that are acting through and with the research participants, producing changes within the complex configurations of their gender assemblages (Ringrose and Renold, 2014). For Malvina, it was her child’s birth that gave a push to her intensifying desires for women, which affected the entanglements of her relational assemblage:

I have always had sexual relationships with both men and women … but … I come from … a very conservative background and family… When my child was born, things started to pour over me like an avalanche … In that wrestling I started to tear down walls around me and in the long run the long relationship, the marriage was left behind and then men completely. I am not in contact with my parents any more … after … I’ve got [the] freedom to live the kind of life I want to have for myself.

In this gender assemblage, Malvina’s parents and conservative upbringing had blocked the becoming of her desires for women from developing into a couple relationship. It was the desire for women that was a productive, propulsive force working across the assemblage – producing changes in her relational entanglements as she left her marriage and cut the ties to her conservative and abusive parents. Although these changes were powerful and led to a divorce from her heterosexual marriage, they were gradual and the sum of many elements rather than being a sudden discovery of one’s LGBTQ+ identity. One of the women, Sara, who had experienced changes in her sexuality in her fifties, referred to sexuality as a continuous becoming: ‘I cannot know what I am going to desire when I am sixty or seventy. I cannot say if this is some kind of stage … I give myself permission to enjoy it now, at the stage [that] is going on at the moment.’ Yet, sex here also refers to elements beyond individual and isolated processes, as becoming sexual also means becoming with societal values, different spaces and experiences. Emma relates that she has struggled with sexuality in her female relationship: ‘There [have] been difficulties with sexuality, maybe with my own inhibitions. It has always been easiest for [us] to make love when we have been travelling abroad, [there we have] really been able to escape this normative society.’

For Malvina, Sara and other women who referred to themselves as ‘late bloomers’ there was often an exhilarating feel when they talked about sexuality with women. Sara experienced her desire and her body’s openness when having sex with a woman:

it is somehow almost shocking how a person can be in their lusts when one gets to romp with a woman [laughs]. It just feels so dif – , it is on a completely different level, and it is [a] very good place for me to be, I enjoy it enormously. – and also how [my] body reacts.

Yet, the desire for women was not only experienced as an exhilarating feeling when bodies become open to another when having sex, but entangled with social and material processes. Becoming an LGBTQ+ woman is a collective, intersubjective process, rather than an individual and isolated matter, as Yiran Wang notes in this volume (Chapter 7). The next excerpt points to Emma’s becoming with a gender assemblage that extends itself beyond the two female partner’s bodies, working across spaces, events and interests, vibrating with affective intimacies:

When I think about the beginning of me and Marja’s relationship, it was … going in the same direction, doing things together and going about, we travelled a lot. All the Pride events and gay bars you can find in Europe and all over the world, they were really nice trips – also, cultural life and that kind of thing [interests] we shared … I remember after a scientist-heterosexual [Emma’s male ex-partner was a scientist] relationship, how important it was for me to get to be with a person who shared the same interest[s] and values. It brought us together very much and was important to me.

The affective intimacies of this gender assemblage emerge as a co-constitution of many entangled elements: travelling together with one’s female partner to ‘gay destinations’, collectively becoming with pride events and spaces of gay bars, sharing interests and values and attending cultural events with one’s partner. These complexly entangled elements and affective intimacies thereof also brought the partners closer to each other. Emma contrasts this becoming to her previous relationship with a man, who was a scientist, implying that the assembled elements, interests and values of a ‘scientist-heterosexual’ gender assemblage were of a different kind, possibly creating distance between the partners.

Affective intimacies in LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages often extend beyond the intimate couple in other ways. Gender assemblages are not just about desire or intimacy between two partners. The intimacies of Emma and Marja’s gender assemblage extended to the collective of their friends as they organised an event for them to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.

When we had been together for fifteen years, we arranged this event for our friends on the International Women’s Day and celebrated our time together by inviting our friends, raised a toast there. We didn’t make a point about it, that this was our fifteenth anniversary, rather like ‘you are most welcome and we offer drinks and something to eat’ for our friends.

In contrast, the next excerpt shows how the binary ideas of gender and segregation of gender in many fields of society affect the assembling of gendered bodies and spaces in ways that can have distancing effects between partners in mixed-sex relationships.

When the partner is of [the] same gender, there is not that certain kind of living in different worlds, which forms, starting from all kinds of [men’s] sauna nights and other things. [In a relationship with a woman] it’s not that I would hang out with completely different bunch of people [than my partner]. … that kind of segregation can be found in Finland quite a lot. The vocations are very gendered, and there is other stuff, in men’s and women’s socialising and talk, male bonding and all that … That is something that I find quite hostile – there is [a] certain kind of hostility that I haven’t found in female relationships. – It is strange that even there where you are in a very close love relationship, in a heterosexual relationship, even inside of that I have experienced that kind of cultural hostility, it is there.

In this gender assemblage, gender segregation affects how gendered bodies are brought together and distanced from one another in different spaces. Here ‘being in different worlds’ extends itself beyond the two partners, as Sanna’s male partners are becoming with a gender assemblage that extends to men’s sauna nights and bonding between other male bodies. Working life is strongly segregated in Finland to ‘men’s and women’s’ occupations (Kauhanen and Riukula, 2019). Segregation and gendered inequalities are reproduced in everyday activities, practices and processes, from which men’s sauna night is one example (Bolin and Olofsdotter, 2018). Gender segregation has an accumulative effect of a certain kind of affective intimacies, as Sanna feels that there was hostility present even between the mixed-sex intimate partners. This kind of effect of gender segregation is demonstrative of the ways that bodies are conditioned and condition themselves to one another in a set of unequal and uneven relations of power (also Ahmed, 2000; Zengin, 2016). This does not mean that all LGBTQ+ women would have experienced close relationships with men as hostile, but many spoke of a certain kind of distance from their male (ex-)partners.

The accumulation of affective intimacies of a positive tone in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships with women does not mean that all female relationships would have necessarily been ‘easy’. Some harmonious and close couples also ended up separating for various reasons. In Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, assemblages are rhizomatic in that they connect embodied, affective and psychic elements in many different ways. The compositions of these assemblages are varying and unique, as the next excerpt shows:

A relationship with a woman is somehow, it goes mentally on a deeper level and it can be both straining and also kind of more giving, it feels deeper … With those men that I have dated, it has been more straightforward somehow easier. Men don’t have that many expectations of me or the relationship.

The effects of gender assemblages are multiple, as Helena experienced the accumulating affective intensities of a female relationship to be both rewarding and straining, and felt that relationships with men could be easier. Malvina’s first relationship with a woman, in turn, had been tumultuous and ended in separation. Yet she looked forward to her future relationships with women:

Maybe I can best describe it in that I already eagerly look forward [to the time] that I am older, in granny’s age. How wonderful it will be when the two grannies go about out there, do nice things together … I like to take part in all kinds of cultural events, and go to museums. I like to hang around in cafés and libraries … In my relationships with men, the interests haven’t been quite the same. We have done all that [together], but I’ve had this feeling that the other person is not so excited about that kind of thing, and does not get as much out of it, and then it also flattens one’s own enthusiasm about it.

In Malvina’s imagining of a future relationship with a woman with shared interests, attending cultural events and spaces has an effect of enhancing intimacies in the gender assemblage. Gender here again extends to spaces and events like museums, libraries, cafés and becoming with them together with one’s partner vitalises Malvina as the whole gender assemblage is vibrating with energy and affective intimacies. These complexly entangled elements and affective intimacies also have the capacity to bring the partners closer together and energise their bodies as they are becoming with the gender assemblage.

Shifting equalities and inequalities in affective gender assemblages with a child

Having a child or desire for a child was often a very important element in a gender assemblage of LGBTQ+ women. Often when a child or a desire for a child was brought into a gender assemblage it could both enhance the closeness and proximity between the partners and create distance between them, as an effect of various elements in the assemblage. First, it must be noted that whereas it can be normatively expected in a gender assemblage of a heterosexual woman that (hetero)sexuality, partnership (or marriage) and motherhood are tightly entangled (Rich, 1976; Sevon, 2009), in the gender assemblages of LGBTQ+ women, love, partnership, desire for a child and building family were not entangled in any straightforward way, but rather in many different ways. In many women’s gender assemblages the desire for a child was a strong cohesive force, stronger than their wish for a partner. Malla, a woman in her fifties, said: ‘Then I met my future partner and we got together. It was tinted by the fact that I had already decided that I want to have children. – For my partner it was like OK, but she wasn’t the pushing force in it.’

Often the partners experienced changes in their relationship when the first baby came. Katja and Laura are ex-partners who both reminisced on the beginning of their relationship as romantic falling-in-love and a time of closeness – in both an emotional and practical sense as they spent a lot of time together at the beginning of their relationship. Katja reminisces: ‘The first phase [of the relationship] was before I got pregnant with our first child. We were “head over heels in love” and it was always the two of us … even when we were in the company of other people.’ In turn, Laura says: ‘The first years were such a wonderful time, we had such a great time together, we laughed a lot.’ However, both of them imply that their relationship changed when the baby came. Laura relates: ‘But then Jaakko was born and the life changed a little and then she [Katja] had her teaching job and positions at the university and that kind of thing [on] her mind. Then it was more like this ordinary day-to-day life, which made it [the relationship] more difficult. Jaakko was a colicky baby and he cried … for the first six months.’

In the couple interview between Katja and Laura, when their first child had just been born, Katja described the relationship in terms of the equality ideals of a female relationship (see Lahti, 2015). She said to Laura: ‘Well, there isn’t such an [expectation] that if you were a guy it would be a big thing if you do laundry or … that kind of expectation like my heterosexual female friends talk about how nice it is that the guy also cleans at home, etc. I think it would be burdensome if the roles would differ by default.’ Yet, after more than ten years and two children, the situation was different – yet, very complex. Katja describes in retrospect, after their separation, how the housework and child care was divided in their family:

Well it has been a two-sided thing … I am the biological mother of the children and I stayed at home with both of them for about a year after they were born … and yet I was the most career-oriented of us, so after that year I did very long working days and she [Laura] was the one who took care of our home. So how we shared housework: I think she did 70 percent and I did 30 percent, because I did longer working hours … and then again I have taken care of everything related to children’s hobbies, taking the children to their friend’s birthdays, taking the children to day care … once I almost fainted when I was sick and had to fetch a child from the day care … that was not part of what she did with the children.

I have noted in my field diary that these parts of Katja’s follow-up interview are affectively very intense, she has tears in her eyes many times. I also remember that at that time, in 2014, I had not heard very many similar stories of unjust distributions of housework and childcare in LGBTQ+ relationships. Since then, when doing the separation interviews for my postdoctoral study, I heard more stories of this kind. For example, Malla described: ‘My partner took the role, which is the other role than that of the role of biological mother. During the ten years [they were together] it moulded into a shape, where I carried the main responsibility of the home and the kids.’

I have demonstrated elsewhere with Marjo Kolehmainen (Lahti and Kolehmainen, 2020) that when a child is brought into a relationship assemblage, the focus often shifts from a dyadic couple relationship and gender-neutral ideas into the heteronormative ideas of a family with a mother and a father. Following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (2004) notion of the rhizomatic organisation of assemblages, a part of an assemblage can always be plugged into another assemblage, where it can grow along its old line or along a new line. It seems that heteronormative ways of ‘doing’ gender can also be plugged into LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages, affecting their lines of becoming.

Yet, as this could be the case, the situation was often much more complex than simply following the unequal gendered conventions of heterosexual relationships (Jurva and Lahti, 2019). The unjust ways of sharing childcare and housework were often an effect of multiple elements in an assemblage. The biological mother carrying the baby in her womb for nine months affected how the bodies were conditioned and conditioned themselves to one another in female couples’ families as well (also Ahmed, 2000; Zengin, 2016). Emma depicts:

When the child was born, the everyday life became easier … when the child was there concretely and she [her partner] could help concretely, the baby was a real human being. During the pregnancy she [her partner] couldn’t empathise … like what often happens in a heterosexual relationship. The stomach gets bigger … you live through all the phases of the child’s development. I felt that after the baby was born our relationship got better and we got closer to one another all the time, but it just wasn’t enough.

While Emma was pregnant, Emma felt that Marja could not relate to the embodied experience that Emma went through when the baby grew and developed in her womb. Things got better when the baby was born, and Marja could engage with the physical act of taking care of the baby. Yet, for Katja and Laura’s family, gender was assembled in a different way, as the cultural idea that the biological mother also assumes the main responsibility of taking care of the baby when it is born was plugged in. Katja describes Laura’s relationship to the baby: ‘She didn’t want to take care of a small child – like we had very traditional gender roles in that sense … the man goes to work and the woman takes care of the children.’ Yet, the gender assemblage was assembled in more complex ways than just reproducing heterosexual gendered conventions. While Katja carried the main responsibility of taking care of the baby, the sharing of household chores was unequally distributed as well, but there the heaviest burden was on Laura’s shoulders. Katja notes, ‘The … difference [to the traditional gender roles] was that my ex-spouse took care of the laundry and cooked the food.’ In this gender assemblage, parts of unequal heterosexual relationship dynamics were plugged into the female couple’s gender assemblage, but they were assembled in ways that put both partners in unjust, difficult situations.

Gender assemblages were thus complex, and although heterosexual gendered ways could partly be guiding the ways in which the division of care and housework was done, the situation was also affected by other elements such as the partners being of different LGBTQ+ women’s generations. At the time of their first interview, when Katja was in her twenties, a heated public debate on same-sex couples’ right to infertility treatments was going on in Finland. Although disputed, the emerging ideas of LGBTQ+ families might have especially affected Katja’s becoming as a bisexual woman, whereas Laura had also lived her life as part of an earlier generation of lesbians and queer women who had often embraced and accepted lifestyles without normative families or children (Kuosmanen, 2007; Weston, 1995). This resonates with what Emma told about her partner, ‘She never thought [of] herself as a parent, and didn’t want to define herself as [a] parent … well she defines herself as a lesbian, but she is Marja, an independent person.’ Yet, in this family the everyday living was smooth, and the housework and childcare nevertheless were shared equally, as depicted by Emma. This highlights how gender assemblages are multiple and varied, affecting the division of housework and childcare in various ways. It depends on the multiple elements and relations that come together in a particular assemblage.

After a relationship break-up, the assembled (unjust) ways of caring for the children often continued in various ways. Often the specific gender assemblage of unjust ways of taking care of the children could extend itself beyond the individual body to material spaces; for example, after the break-up one of the women moved into a small flat, where there was no space for the children to stay the night. Another woman said that her ex-partner had moved twenty kilometres away from her and the children, which made it very difficult for the teenage children to visit her as they had various intensive hobbies near their other mother’s home.

The gender assemblage thus extended to material spaces and living arrangements, which made it impossible for the parent to take full responsibility for the children after the break-up. An example of another kind comes from Kerttu and Sinikka, whose relationship soon went off rails after their child was born. The child had been the cohesive force in their relationship, and it continued that way after the break-up. Here the gender assemblage of fair sharing of childcare duties extended to the other partner’s flat: ‘There was one time, like Sinikka had almost always put him to sleep when he was small, and then one time he was ill and somehow he couldn’t sleep in my place and instead of saying “bring him here”, she just came here, put him to sleep and went away.’

Coming back to Katja and Laura, in the gender assemblage of this female couple closeness and distance between the partners was strongly entangled with the disputes about housework and childcare, but also entangled with disputes about the time the couple should spend together and apart. Katja said:

The reason for the break-up was in the end … the fact that we had such a different view on how much time we should spend together just the two of us … she didn’t need other people so much, for her our relationship and our family was enough and that we would do things together. But for me after a year it started to bother me more that I spend too little time with my friends.

Laura on her part wished that they had had more time together as a family and she also felt the burden of the housework: ‘There was too little time we spent together. And I was there at home doing housework, taking care of that [so that] everything works at least somehow.’ Yet, again, the matter is complex and might have to do with the generational gap between the two women. When Katja had wished Laura would take a bigger part in their public life as a family and socialising with Katja’s friends, Laura missed the lesbian community she had been an active member of in another town before she had met Katja. She had to leave the community behind when they moved to a smaller town with their family. It seemed that Katja was more open to socialising as an LGBTQ+ family with the ‘wider world’; whereas in Laura’s depictions of these encounters, homophobia and antipathy towards their family was present. The generational gap between the two women might have also affected how they viewed their possible social circles as a female couple and an LGBTQ+ family.


This chapter makes a novel contribution to the study of affective intimacies and affective inequalities by exploring the significance of gender in LGBTQ+ women’s relationships from an assemblage point of view. The chapter shifts the focus from the human-centred paradigm that would approach gender as an identity that ‘belongs to a person’, to exploring gender as an assemblage. Gender is seen as a multiplicity emerging out of various elements, relations and affects that come together in an assemblage (Coleman and Ringrose, 2013; Kolehmainen, 2020; Schuller, 2020). This makes it possible to attune to the accumulating affective intimacies as an effect of the interactions of many bodies and forces in gender assemblages, enabling proximities between certain gendered bodies and creating distance between others, in temporally shifting ways (De Landa, 2006; Ringrose and Renold, 2014).

The chapter began with an observation of the closeness and easiness of certain LGBTQ+ women’s relationships, while others struggle with unequal ways of sharing childcare and domestic responsibilities in ways that strikingly resemble the hierarchical gendered conventions of heterosexual relationships. The perspective of accumulating affective intensities in gender assemblages makes it possible to approach these issues from a nuanced perspective that goes beyond fixed ideas about LGBTQ+ women’s relationships. My analysis shows how the complex and shifting gender assemblages, which are a co-constitution of many elements (e.g. sexual desire, psychic entanglements, cultural norms and ideas about gender, (shared) interests, events and material spaces), have an ability to bring certain gendered bodies closer to one another, affecting the closeness and ‘smooth sailing’ of everyday life for certain LGBTQ+ female relationships. On the other hand, binary ideas of gender and gender segregation in many different fields of society affect the assembling of gendered bodies in different spaces, in such ways that can also have a distancing effect between partners in mixed-sex relationships. Gender assemblages have multiple effects, as some LGBTQ+ women experienced the closeness of female relationships as a ‘strain’. Closeness can also become straining in the course of a relationship, although experienced as energising in the beginning.

Often when a child was brought into a gender assemblage it could both enhance the closeness and proximity between the partners or create distance between them, as an effect of various elements in the gender assemblage. For instance, the arrival of a child could mean that heteronormative ideas of gender are plugged into LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages and affect the ways of taking care of children and dividing housework. Yet, although it entailed heteronormative elements, childcare and housework were often divided in more complex ways. The analysis also shows how equalities and inequalities emerge in temporally shifting ways in LGBTQ+ women’s gender assemblages and how this is entangled with closeness and distance in their relationships. They emerged as an effect of multiple elements in gender assemblages, which could include and extend to differing generations of women, to the biological mother carrying the baby for nine months, to the repressive cultural ideas that she should also carry the main responsibility for the child’s care when it was born, to spatial and geographical living arrangements after the separation and to disputes about how to appear in public as an LGBTQ+ family. Importantly, the various elements and power dynamics come to matter differently in the course of the relationship, depending on relational processes that shift over time. By approaching gender as assemblages, I have revealed the multiplying effects of different elements in those assemblages and highlighted their ongoing processes.

In order to illuminate the multiplicitous nature of gender, I have analysed gender as a productive assemblage (Bennet, 2010). While my analysis shows that gender assemblages are complex and multiple, I do not treat them as random (see also Lahti and Kolehmainen, 2020). Often the elements and dynamic processes are assembled in certain ways, such as in gendered power dynamics, or gender segregation that can diminish the vitality of bodies when being part of an assemblage. Multiplicity means that gender is in a constant state of change and becoming. Yet this does not always mean becoming in a radical sense (Linstead and Pullen, 2006). When plugged into a gender assemblage, unjust gendered ways have a power to diminish affective capacities of partners, although they would not attach only to certain gendered bodies or be always organised in similar ways during the course of a relationship. However, my analysis also highlights the vitalising aspects of certain LGBTQ+ women’s assemblages that have the capacity to bring the partners closer together and energise their bodies as they are becoming with these vibrating and intimate gender assemblages.


1 Please see interviewees’ definitions of their gender on page 181.
2 The acronym LGBTQ+ women refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer women, where + is an acknowledgement of non-cisgender and non-heterosexual experiences that are not easily captured by the aforementioned identity categories in my data. The letters ‘I’ referring to intersex people and ‘A’ referring to asexual people are left out, when referring to my data, because none of the interviewees identified with these terms.


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