I think this is an interesting conversation to be having if taken in the right context, so here's something that Markos Moulitsas said yesterday:
You know what would help with marriage equality? For gay couples who have committed themselves to each other to call each other "husband" and "wife". I still hear "my partner" way too much. The more people get used to men talking about their husbands, and women talking about their wives, the easier it'll be to change the culture and, ultimately, the law.
Well, that's a complicated suggestion and I'm just going to say right now that I don't have any problem with any word any other couple chooses to go by. If a lesbian couple I knew wanted to go by "wife," then even I'd use it to say, "Claudia, how's your wife doing?" But....
If I were in a relationship with a guy, a long-term, live-in relationship that we could see no end to, a relationship that we've formalized in some way depending on where we're living, and this guy referred to me as his "husband," I would pack up my bags, leave a note informing him that he's arrived in Dumpsville (Population: You!), get on a bus to the nearest friend's place to crash, and wonder what it says about me that I could be in a relationship for so long with someone who doesn't even have a passing acquaintance with my relationship to that nonsense.
Fortunately, there isn't much chance of that in the relationship I'm in - the word for husband in French is "mari," which is too obviously associated with "marriage" to be used without that sheet of paper.
The word for wife, incidentally, is "femme," which also means "woman." To know whether someone means "woman" or "wife," you have to listen for the word that precedes "femme" for clues. The difference between the two words in French is "une femme" (a woman) and "sa femme" (his wife). So when your referring to the wife of a guy in France, you're literally saying "his woman." The property implications are obvious.
But back to the original question at hand. The terms are loaded, which anyone who expresses a preference has to acknowledge. There is a difference between "husband/wife" and "partner."
The difference between the two terms is the difference between the so-called "traditional marriage" and the type of marriage that the gay rights movement is supposedly supporting, an equal partnership to improve both people's lives. If we're saying that marriage is a civil contract when we say we want it open to everyone, then we're saying we want the latter, not a gendered relationship where one person provides and the other person obeys. (Although I have to say... kinky! Just have a safe word before trying it out.)
Before you go rolling your eyes at this here dirty fucking hippie, just take a minute and remember that marriage used to legally be that sort of relationship, with wives having about as many rights as children. Fortunately, society has changed and has begun (but definitely hasn't finished) to recognize that women, whether married or not, are adults who can make their own decisions.
But the former definition of marriage is the type that the Religious Right would like to impose on the rest of us. Their fight against same-sex marriage isn't just about same-sex marriage, it isn't just about homophobia, it isn't just about us. It's about getting everyone in the country to live in little mass-produced replicas of Normal Rockwell paintings because:
- diversity of family structures makes them insecure and scares them,
- some women, even women they aren't married to, having equal rights puts their power in a precarious position, and
- they think that all of society's problems are caused by a lack of traditional marriage, from poverty to racism to crime to anything else that would, if the problem weren't marriage, require a good redistribution of the wealth to solve.
And that's why I wouldn't want to be referred to as a "husband," because I don't see relationships in husband-and-wife or even husband-and-husband terms. The terms husband, wife, and partner describe roles, not individual people, and the role of partner is one that I'd prefer over the role of husband.
The term "partner" advances a marriage equality (if you will) agenda better because it acknowledges that the two people in a relationship are equal (hence the "equality" in the "marriage").
What would help the fight for same-sex marriage is for supportive heterosexual couples to stop referring to themselves as husbands and wives and to start referring to each other as "partners." It shows that they're ready to move from the old definition of marriage on to the new, contemporary definition that defines men and women as equal participants. If you want to throw other people through a loop, confirm over and over again that men and women in marriages can take on whatever jobs and duties that work for them, making the "one man, one woman" definition obsolete.
But I'm not about to go and tell straight people what to call each other, or any couple for that matter. Like I said before the jump, I'm not out to judge the terms other couples use in their relationships. There's something incredibly arrogant about doing that, and that's just not how I operate.
I do have to mention how I was thrown through a loop a few years back when a coworker's England-English-speaking French friend mentioned her "companion." She mentioned this person only in passing, without any other sentences that contained gender pronouns to figure out what sex this person was.
For months, I assumed she was with a woman since generally straight people don't mind mentioning the gender of their partners while LGB people often hide genders in a workplace setting out of fear of discrimination. And since I didn't see her much I didn't really think about it until someone else mentioned visiting her and her husband.
But then, did it really matter to me what sex her companion was any more than it mattered what his race, height, religion, or profession, since I was never going to meet him? Was his sex (and, therefore, her sexuality) any of my business since I was just a passing acquaintance?
That's an profound way for a straight person to show her support for sex, gender, and sexuality equality of all kinds.