Alex Blaze

Husbands and wives and partners, oh my!

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 08, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: Daily Kos, LGBT, marriage, partner

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:

  1. diversity of family structures makes them insecure and scares them,

  2. some women, even women they aren't married to, having equal rights puts their power in a precarious position, and

  3. 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.

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DanaRSullivan | April 8, 2009 3:34 PM

Wow, that's a lot to think about. The symbols (including names) that we use to decorate or advertise our relationships are really fascinating and complicated. I've read that the wedding ring used to represent a chain binding a woman to her husband's home...but I could wear one without feeling like I'm compromising myself.

This reminds me of the whole name-change thing. When a woman I know changes her last name and couches it with a statement that to them, name-changing doesn't symbolize inequality and there are other legitimate reasons to do it, I want to fully accept their decision, but I usually feel a little disappointed (although I wouldn't criticize them). But then, I'd be willing to co-opt a slew of similar symbols that have the same oppressive history, like a ring, the words "husband" and "wife", and really the institution of marriage as a whole. I don't really know what life experiences led me to warm fuzzy feelings for marriage in general and yucks for name-changing, but there it is.

I like the idea of referring to partners as partners no matter what gender combination they are. Not only does it avoid prioritizing gender, it avoids prioritizing couples who identify as married versus ones who don't.

Hmmm, I think "wife" is the stigmatized and gendered word. Husband derives from Nordic "man of the house" language roots.

Also, the gendered quality to the word only holds weight in relationships where there are expected roles; that is, bi-sexed relationships.

If two men call each other "husband", how are you assuming that one's a provider and one's a home-maker? If both are called by the same name, how are you introducing inequity?

Now, what the words do imply is possessiveness. So does "partner", simply by saying "my partner". Does the concept of being possessed intimidate you? This might be something people might want to discuss with their partners, then.

Furthermore, partner denotes equal status, yes. It also gives of a frivolous, business-oriented feel. If you go talking to average individuals, I can bet you that "partner" does not convey as much intimacy as does "husband/wife".

Not only that; but even if you change the names, it will do very little to solve the problem of gender barriers. Ceasing to use "husband/wife" will do very little to stop other-izing women. It's the deep-seated tendency to divide male and female identity/experience that needs to be dealt with, essentially.

Good points. I'm definitely not saying that this will solve all gender inequality. Of course it won't.

I don't think that "my partner" implies possessiveness at all. It's like "my friend" or "my colleague" - they describe a relationship to someone. And "my husband" isn't necessarily possessive either.

"Husband" has a lot of baggage for me that it picked up after the Norwegians got done with it. And when two men refer to each other as husbands, which is pretty destabilizing as John mentions below, but seems like a role, a rut, something one gets trapped in. It has a lot of meaning from the traditional marriage troop that I would definitely like to see end (yes! destroy traditional marriage and replace it with marriage between equals!).

"Partner," on the other hand, makes me think of school, when students partner up for something, or partners in crime, sex partners, spiritual partner, just two people working together to create something or get somewhere. It has a certain amount of adventure to it.

As I said, if you prefer another term, I'm not judging. But I'm not going to start liking "husband" because some dude says it's good political strategy.

Yes, his article is pretty far-fetched.

In fact, I think his strategy would backfire horribly. As I said before, the word "husband/wife" carries a lot of implied intimacy. Every argument against gay men boils down to the "ick" factor straights feel.

Using terms that remind them (straights) of "unpleasant" sex images on a consistent basis would exacerbate negative reaction, methinks.

I USED to say "partner".

But after way-(way)-WAY too many times of hearing - "Really? What business do you both have?" - I now say "husband". These has NEVER been ANY confusion since (well, at least no confusion about the nature of our relationship).

But very sincere, well-meaning HETS have come up to me and asked, "If you refer to him as your husband, then are you THE WIFE"? Of course this just opens the door for a conversation about gender roles (which is often needed), but I do relish the shock-then-recover look I get when I refer to myself (kinda butch when I wanna be) and my husband (REALLY butch by nature) as husband and husband.

Some HETS get so000ooo confused when there is no "obvious" submissive party in a relationship.

Ha, it reminds me of when someone once asked who was the man and who was the woman in my relationship with Alberto. I wish I had a ready, clever response, but I was just sorta stunned.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 9, 2009 5:12 AM

When asked the question the first time I responded: "Living, so what do you do with your partner?"

There's something else you're missing too. Terms like "husband" and "wife" assume heterosexuality. I often hear guys ask other guys about their future wife, or girls about their future husband; or I'll hear the terms used generically in everyday speech, "Guys, think about what you want your future wife to be like," etc. If people are asked about their partner or future partner, though, a certain sexual orientation is not assumed. I know many opposite-sex (and same-sex) couples who use the word "partner" partly for this reason, in addition to those mentioned above (they're less loaded, more equal terms, etc).

I live in Western Massachusetts, where "partner" has been the default term for both straight and gay couples for years. I hate it. Thankfully, since 2004, it seems to be gradually losing its appeal, except among well-meaning straight people (kinda like those HRC equal sign stickers).

When straight married folks refer to their "partner," what's getting lost in their effort to put us all on the same level is that they in fact are partaking of a status not allowed to gay folks. It's not just a false veneer of equality, but it obscures that very real legal difference between their relationships and ours.

When gay people who are legally married use "partner," it obscures their gayness. It's a mini-closet. It's this bizarrely coy way of saying your gay without being in someone's face about it. I'm all for being in someone's face about it.

On the other hand, when we use these words with all the historical baggage in a brand new context, it messes with all our heads, in a very good way. It's tough on gay folks, because it really forces us to claim the (legally constructed) legitimacy of our newly available status. It's tough on straight people because it forces them to own this new idea of marriage as a couple not determined by gender.

In short, I just don't buy this old feminist argument that since the terms had a particular resonance (and legal significance), they're forever tainted. Let's contemplate the evolution of that long-tainted word "queer" for a minute or two.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 9, 2009 5:01 AM

In that I remember when these were new Feminist arguments I applaud your ability to assume they are no longer valid. I just rewrote 22 pages of legal rules and regs for our condo building. We have a female manager and I made her laugh when I told her that I had eliminated all references to "the manager he" in the document.

Women have come a damn long way, but the glass ceiling still remains, with cracks, but it is still there.

Below I mention my relationship with "my life partner" which I hope you can appreciate.


You dislike straight married folks using the term partner because it hides the fact that they are married? I agree it allows some folks to hide their straight-privilege-guilt, but I also feel as if legal marital status can be a private thing. A requirement of announcing your marital status every time you reference the person you are in relationship with feels intrusive.

I suppose part of that comes from being in the trans community where marriages occassionally happen but are in perpetual risk of being annulled if someone cared enough to challenge them in court. A lot of my friends would rather not broadcast that they are married just as a general precaution because someone might object and want to do something about it.

I understand what you're saying, but I think partner is still a really really useful word. I am trans identified, people I have dated have been trans identified, and boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife don't really work that well sometimes. In that the person I am dating may not identify as male or female and therefore none of those words work. I am not comfortable orchestrating what people want to call the person they are in a relationship with.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | April 8, 2009 10:34 PM

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating: in Ireland, a lot of people say "partner," no matter the sexual orientation, marital status, or gender of the couple. It's ubiquitous on the radio and widespread in print media and it really threw me when I first moved there. Over time, I grew to view it as quite a leveler, however, and to prefer it.

Yeah, it's totally normalized in other English-speaking countries. A Englishwoman just emailed me and told me that she prefers "partner" because of their CU law. Here's a comment left on dailykos:

You need to move to Australia. At least among the below 50 age group (and the people I know), every couple seems to be composed of partners, whether gay, straight, married or living together. I found it confusing at first because I didn't know the status of straight couples (de facto or de jure marriage) but now it doesn't seem to matter.

And another:

Here in NZ the use of "partner" is widespread, among EVERYONE. When someone says partner you have no idea whether they are legally married, whether they are gay or straight, etc. And why should it be anyone's business?

So straights how about you start equality moving by showing a little equality in your own relationships and abandon calling each other husband or wife and use partner? After all we are talking about marriage EQUALITY.

There ya go. It's possible.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 9, 2009 4:53 AM

If you want intimacy implied in your description of your "partner" call him or her your "Life Partner" or (this is an oldie) how about "soul mate?"

I and mine have been legal partners with an Illinois corporation between us, as well as trusts for land shared, and powers of attorney, joint wills, and everything else imaginable. Total Trust.

John, as to "what business do you have together?" Answer: Living.

Celebrating 33 years next October. Let's see, what do you get for 33 years together? Rustoleum I suppose. :)

I'd rather be mocked mercilessly as a Leave It To Beaver wanna-be by using "husband" than hearing snickers about how New-Age, holistic jargon "Life Partner" sounds like.

"Life Partner" just seems so outlandish and born out of a Danielle Steele novel to me, so I'd rather use just "partner" in that case.

As for previous comments on "whose business is it what sexual orientation the members are?":

It's time to stop channeling your inner gay Republican.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 9, 2009 11:50 PM

There are all flavors of liberal Republicans and Blue dog Democrats and grown ups try to get along. Make an effort honey! I refer to my partner as "my partner" usually. The use of "life partner" was to imply intimacy when needed or called for.

Try to keep up, OK, I know you would rather sarcastically spit at the keyboard, but do try.

Happy "New Age" holistic, non judgmental, apolitical, non religious, interdenominational "Sort of" Good Friday to you.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 10, 2009 2:35 AM

When I said "grown ups" I was referring to mental age in your case. And I have forgotten already more than you yet know you ageist fool.

In that you know I care for a partner with senior dementia your typical inappropriate remarks speak for themselves. Look to the low quality of the man.

Yes, you probably have forgotten already my recently moderated comment. I'm sure you'll forget about the inappropriate barbs as well ;D.

For someone offended by ageism, you sure like to make assumptions about age-stereotypical behavior. The concept of "mental age" is one of them.

But I don't mind self-aggrandizing claims; they're common in susceptible old men who just beg to be trolled by me.

Much Love,

Nothing Personal~

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 11, 2009 1:06 AM

Let no one say you are modest, even if you are confused.

Beg to be trolled by a Hobbit?

Nothing personal Honey, at all!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 10, 2009 12:29 AM

Oh, and Gay Republicans are welcome to live as far as I am concerned. I do not want to be one, but I don't envy them either. Why do you envy them so much?

Alex Grigny Alex Grigny | April 9, 2009 7:56 AM

What about "spouse", is it in common use?

Bill Vayens | April 9, 2009 8:50 AM

A very interesting discussion and one that points out the differences in all of us in language and words.

The first thing I had to do was ask myself, "how do I refer to this person with whom I've spent the past 25 years of my life?" And I realized that it really depends upon the situation and what information I'm trying to convey. And it reminded me of my experience with the cable repair guy this week and looking back upon that conversation tells me a lot about myself.

He asked about a certificate of achievement that's in a frame in the bookcase and I referred to it saying it belonged to my "partner". And I realize that is the term that I use when I want to indicate that there is some relationship between he and I, but I'm not comfortable making it clear to the other person that it is a same-sex relationship; using the term "husband" would immediately convey that information.

And I realize I have a hierarchy of terms that I use, in part because I'm not comfortable with the term "husband" and not just because it immediately conveys the existence of same-sex relationship. I still equate that term with an opposite-sex relationship and am unable to move beyond that application and the fact that the term implies that there is some form of official recognition of the relationship.

So in situations where the other person clearly knows I'm gay, I tend to use the term "other half" to refer to him. For me, I think it captures the essence of our relationship and communicates that well.

I've never been comfortable with the term partner; to me it communicates a clinical, business-like relationship. But looking back it's clear it's the term I default to when I want to let the other person know there is some form of relationship with going into too much detail.

Life partner just sounds to pretentious to me.

I've considered spouse, but again to me that infers a legal recognition that I've yet to achieve from my government.

But Markos has got me thinking. He's right that the more we communicate more specifically about who we are, the more we open up society's acceptance of us. But absent the legal recognition, the term "husband" just doesn't do it for me. Perhaps on the day that changes and I'm able to get legal recognition of our relationship will be the day I'll consider making that leap and changing my terms.

But for now, it's just a lot of thinking for the first thing in the morning.

My "partner" and I both use "Husband" to refer to each other in the third person. We feel that it describes acrately the relationship as we both "husband" each others resorses and shair
equally in the tasks of living togeather in a Religiously/legal & Commited relationship.
IT opens the door, for us to talk about our realtionship to anyone as well. For that reason alone, we find it valuable.

My other half and I use the term partner, because it's what works best for us. I'm a transgender biological female. He is an otherwise heterosexual male. To many people we 'appear' to be a heterosexual couple at time. In our long term relationship, we've decided not to get married because we've both been married and divorced, and it's really kind of embittered us to the whole prospect.

We use 'partner' because there's really no gender-neutral term that adequately describes our level of commitment. "Boyfriend" sounds very high school, and kind of goofy when you're in your mid to late thirties. It sounds very... temporary? And then you run into the gender problem as well.

This week alone I've been referred to as his 'wife' and 'girlfriend', both of which makes my skin crawl to think about. "Partner" seems to be the only applicable term, at least in our particular circumstance.

In my heterosexual relationship, my lover and I refer to each other as "lover" for a couple reasons. To avoid gendered words and terms with loaded with so many assumptions——I've found that using an usualish term lets us define ourselves instead of having the terms define us.

I guess my issue with partner is the lack of distinction between a girlfriend and a committed long term partner/wife/husband. Plenty of people use partner for someone they've been dating for two months, and I suppose many people will wonder what the big deal is. But (before I was divorced) I used wife to refer to my 'partner' and many people just assumed we had 'been together awhile' not that we had made a commitment to each other, had a ceremony etc, where they would know exactly what I meant if I had had a husband. I wanted that distinction, it was important to me. We weren't just girlfriend and girlfriend, we weren't just living together. If straight people go from one of these states to marriage, language acknowledges it, but 'partner' can't do this.

Now, I'm not saying marriage is some kind of ultimate destination. I know people who don't believe in marriage that do believe in long-term commitment, both straight and gay that struggle with this same issue. I just don't think the solution proposed in this article gets at these multiple layers of distinction in relationships, in state sanctioning of relationships, in social/public recognition, in the institution of marriage and the choice involved in what type of relationship you're in and how much you want other people to recognize it, or even IF you want them to recognize it as some of the commenters have mentioned.

I say "sweetie." It has all the equality of "partner" but more of the loving. It also does not exclude my sweetie from having another sweetie. Which he does.

Just as "queer" has been reclaimed, "husband" and "wife" can be reclaimed. I am a genderqueer bisexual in a female body married to a man, and we joke that we have all the usual male and female attributes between the two of us, they just aren't in the usual places :) Even in modern straight marriages, the wife may make more than the husband does, or he may be staying home taking care of the children while she works full-time. The notion that "wives" are automatically subservient is very 1950's and out of touch with current realities, even sexist, especially with a lot of men loosing their jobs, while "female" jobs are still in demand. My husband tells me that a lot of men he knows are just plain afraid of their wives, and in a lot of marriages the wife is clearly dominant. In other marriages "husband" and "wife" already mean equal partners, which is what they mean in my marriage. The other thing that "husband" and "wife" mean in our marriage is "I love you, and I want the whole world to know it." I do understand that things are more complicated for trans people who are in legal limbos, but for the rest of us, why should the world change to an imprecise use of language just because you think marriage is still what it was in the 1950's?

bigolpoofter | April 23, 2009 1:14 PM

"Husband" carries too much patriarchal baggage to have ever felt comfortable with it. In the 90s my then-partner and I always referred to one another with the P-word, often drawing "I didn't know you were a lawyer" from oblivious hets. The practice continues with my current spouse, though I can quite accurately declare "Take my wife, PLEASE!" since someone had to be the bride on our Toronto marriage license.

In a contemporary poly framework, though, we often fall back to the H-word. If I am out with my partner and his boyfriend, he points to me "Hubby!" and my co-buyer of our new home "Boyfriend!" Yet, in collective reference to the two of them and my boyfriend on the West Coast, I'll call them "my partners" for brevity.

One of the reasons why I will not use publicly or legally the term Husband or Wife from a legal standpointe and an equality standpointe is the very nature of the titles is oppressive; however if my future partners choose too do that, as their choice of endearment, then its okay.

The other issue comes down to the nature of the relationship. As an issue of group marriage (which is slightly different than Polygamy and Polyandry/amry though of similar process) all partners are equal in the relationship and so to separate either by gender, ranking, or social role, would dimmunitify the existence of our relationship as a whole. Partner or Spouse is a more correct title in this scenario.

However this is also true with any of our children as well when it comes to interacting in their peer structure and trying to explain why they have five fathers and three mothers but we are not husbands and wifes and why they dont have any of our last names ...since they have the name of our legal corporation instead.... it becomes a dynamics issue of reconciling one model to another model in both language and understanding.

But the children dont care about semantics or dynamics they just want to know they are loved. They know when their friends are or are not in a loving home environment, children will defend other children in some way every time. My one stepson has 1 mother and 4 fathers and is very well adjusted and intelligent, and two of us are not biologically or legally connected to him or his mother.

Love forms the relationship not Laws!

In the UK, "partner" is a catch-all term: it used to signal unmarried couples in long-term relationships, but has broadened out over the past 20 years to all romantic relationships more than a few weeks old, regardless of the gender identities, gender roles, orientations or even numbers of people involved. People often use it to refer to someone else's romantic partner when they're not sure of the status of the relationship, as it covers all bases.

I like subverting the words "wife" and "husband" - returning them to their roots of the Old English h?sb?nda (householder or homemaker - see the related term "husbandry") and wyf (woman)- and tweaking them to fit whatever the hell you want them to. I like, too, the idea my androgynous other half has mooted of us each using both terms to refer to each other.

Partner's fine, too, but trust me - we've been using it widely over here for a long time, and it hasn't supplanted husband and wife or made people think much about gender roles, gender identity, or orientation.