John M. Becker

He's My Husband, Thank You Very Much

Filed By John M. Becker | December 19, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: boyfriend, gay marriage, LGBT, lover, marital status, marriage, marriage equality, Michael Knaapen, partner, relationships, same-sex marriage

Our society has made remarkable progress in the fight for LGBT equality in my lifetime. Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed yesterday. A majority of Americans support ending workplace discrimination against LGBTs. In 2010, for the first time, two separate polls indicated that a majority of Americans support the freedom of same-sex couples to marry. The well-documented generation gap in support for LGBT rights ensures that anti-equality forces in the United States are ultimately fighting a losing battle.

But as the 2010 midterms so vividly reminded us, there is much work to be done in combating homophobia and advancing equality. Of course, the usual suspects in the anti-gay pantheon are the still most vocal exponents of homophobia, but even well-meaning, LGBT-affirming individuals can and often do reinforce homophobia and heterosexism without even knowing that they're doing it.

I can't tell you how many times I've found myself in the following situation: a supportive, well-meaning friend or family member is introducing me and my spouse to someone we don't know. This person makes the introduction as follows: "Hi, so-and-so! This is my friend John, and this is his [insert occasional awkward pause here] partner (or boyfriend, or lover, or friend) Michael."

Michael and I have been married for nearly five years. Due to an anti-gay constitutional amendment in my state, we had to travel to another jurisdiction in order to wed. Nonetheless, we know that we are husbands to each other, no matter how long it takes for our government to catch up with reality. We're extremely fortunate to be surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family members who, with very few exceptions, affirm and embrace our loving marriage.

Still, we regularly find ourselves in the situation outlined above. I suspect that people have a wide variety of reasons for using non-marital terms to describe our relationship in social situations. Perhaps they aren't (or are?) aware of the religious or political views of others and wish to sidestep any potential awkwardness that might ensue. Perhaps they themselves, while outwardly professing to support equality, still struggle silently with acceptance of our marriage. Perhaps they wish to save us from embarrassment or retribution.

Even LGBT-identified friends of ours slip up on occasion, introducing Michael as my lover or asking me whether my boyfriend and I will be able to attend their holiday party. I suspect that in these cases force of habit is the culprit: same-sex couples have been excluded from the rights and privileges of marriage for so long that many LGBTs don't even think of committed same-sex relationships in marital terms.

However varied the reasons may be for using less contentious terms to describe our marriage, the result is always the same: it denigrates our love, telling us that our marriage is somehow unworthy of the term, inherently unequal and intrinsically less valuable than the marriages of our straight counterparts. It reinforces the still-powerful cultural taboos surrounding LGBTs and their relationships. It implies that honesty about the nature of our relationship is less important than accommodating the prejudice of others. It tells us that it's best to be silent.

I am not entirely without guilt here either. Early in our marriage (perhaps due to my Catholic upbringing or the sometimes sadistic nature of Midwestern politeness), I often adapted my own terminology to suit my audience. For friends, family members, and people under 40 I used the term husband, but for elderly and conservative people, and in work-related situations, I retreated into the relative neutrality of partner. I'm no longer shy about making universal use of the term husband, but have still been reticent to call others out for neglecting to do so themselves.

No more.

I can no longer concern myself with whether or not my marriage makes others uncomfortable. I have to be true to myself and my husband, and to the love that we share. I refuse to make any concessions whatsoever to bigotry - from now on, I will correct anyone who disrespects the way Michael and I define our relationship. I will not allow my marriage to be denigrated in my hearing.

Of course, there are some in the LGBT community who make the conscientious decision not to describe their committed relationships in marital terms. I respect that decision, and I would never, ever suggest that their relationships are any less equal, committed, valuable, or meaningful than mine. However, that decision is for them, and them alone, to make. Michael and I define ourselves as husbands, so referring to us by another term is a sign of deep disrespect that I, and hopefully others, will no longer tolerate.

So this holiday season, when you're introducing your married LGBT friends at a party, remember to respect the way they choose to define their relationship. Michael is my husband. Get used to saying that, because from now on, I'll be correcting you if you don't.

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Good for you.

I find it's pretty easy to interject "my husband, Dave" during introductions. Even within our communities, there's no full agreement on what to call our partners, so it's not surprising that others will struggle. I think it's both an act of kindness and self-assertion to help the process along with a simple, courteously delivered interjection.

Outside of introductions, simple practice has made it much easier to use "husband" in conversation.

At a lodge we stay at, I told the headwaiter at the restaurant that I was waiting for my husband to arrive. A brief while later, she adopted the term when telling me that a table had opened up, and was I welcome to be seated while waiting for my husband.

During my twice-yearly doctor's appointment, my excellent doctor (who is a professor at the local university med school) has a 3rd year med student do the initial exam, then they sit and talk about the results of the exam with each other and me. I recently had reason to mention Dave, and called him my husband. My doctor and med student immediately started using the term.

I've never encountered a negative reaction, though, granted, I live in blue Washington state.

It's all an educational process, and it has to start with us.

I fully agree, John. The trans community has many problems along these lines since there are so many different identities people can and will take for themselves.

A few years ago, I was visiting a friend and sat in on a trans rap group. By far the majority of those attending were young transmen. During the session, I referred to one of the attendees who appeared quite masculine (to me anyway) as "he", and was dressed down for it by this young person, who said that s/he was androgynous and accepted neither male nor female as hir gender. My response was "I'm happy to refer to you however you wish, but it's not my responsibility to know what that is, it's your responsibility to tell me."

I think the same is true here. Different people see themselves in different ways. As we are the people injecting something new into the mix, it's our job to define and explain it to the culture at large before we begin holding people responsible for failing to live up to those expectations.

We've done it before. The repeal of DADT is just the latest evidence of how successful it's been. Consider the discussions in Congress surrounding the bill. There were all sorts of excuses thrown around for not wanting to support repeal, but most of those opposed stayed far away from trying to personally demonize soldiers for being gay.

Even the GOP is slowly coming to understand that social issues just aren't lighting a fire under their base the way they used to. Too many people know an LGBT person or have one in the family. Too many voters are saying to the GOP, in so many words, "We care about taxes, entitlements, and smaller government, gun rights, and immigration, the issues the GOP claims it cares about. Enough with playing to people's bigotries, focus on the issues we actually care about."

I think the next couple of years will be very interesting in terms of how both parties redefine themselves in preparation for 2012. As this happens, I believe that this is exactly the right time for all LGBT Americans to begin becoming more courageous and proactive in defining who and what we are to others.

It's not going to be easy at first, but then, no revolution worth having ever is.

I agree with this:

I think the same is true here. Different people see themselves in different ways. As we are the people injecting something new into the mix, it's our job to define and explain it to the culture at large before we begin holding people responsible for failing to live up to those expectations.

I don't like the term "husband" and I'm ambivalent between "partner" and "boyfriend," leaning towards the latter because I'm still young enough. One person, who was nice enough anyway, used the word "husband" which, instead of making me run and scream, started a conversation on the meanings of those individual terms.

But it's not denigrating to not hear the word husband and people should be explaining what they prefer. It's like how some women want to be addressed by their maiden name, or husband's last name, or a hyphenated last name, or even as "Mrs. Alex Blaze" for whatever reason. People can no longer assume there and just because someone doesn't use your preferred term right away doesn't mean that they're backwards or rude or whatever, it just means that it's impossible to know without asking so some people take a stab in the dark.

@Alex: You're right that it isn't denigrating to not hear the word "husband," provided I haven't yet informed them of our preferred term. As Rebecca pointed out (thanks for your comment and your perspective, Rebecca, by the way!), if we haven't fulfilled our responsibility to educate them about our preferred terminology, we can't fault them for not using it. My problem is when otherwise supportive people know our preferred term and for whatever reason (perhaps to avoid offending someone's religious or political sensibilities, etc.) opt to use a different one. Up until the time I wrote this article, I had occasionally been hesitant to correct them; I have since resolved to not hesitate any longer.

Another reason Michael and I insist on being referred to as husbands is that it calls attention to the fact that our government refuses to allow us to legally define our relationship in that way. Every time I call him my "husband" (or vice versa), the listener is reminded of the second-class status of LGBTs in this country.

Raymond Paquette | December 26, 2010 12:17 PM

It's true that language is changing, so it is important to let people know what you want to be called.

But I think that there is homophobia in action when the "stab in the dark" is usually partner or boyfriend. Why don't they guess that it is "husband"?

Chances are if the person thought that they were dealing with a straight person, they would guess "husband/wife"

Great point, Raymond, and I think you're correct that homophobia is quite possibly a factor when a person's default term/"stab in the dark" is partner or boyfriend rather than husband.

Hi, John!! Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

"I think it's both an act of kindness and self-assertion to help the process along with a simple, courteously delivered interjection."

I totally agree, and as you said, it's our responsibility to provide the terminology we expect others to use when defining our relationships. My problem, though, is when others (for whatever reason, no matter how seemingly innocent) use terms other than the ones we've asked them to use. Those are the situations I was referring to in my post -- the ones which I have resolved to correct without exception.

Congratulations to you and Dave on your marriage!!

Congrats to John and Michael on their marriage. They have something special to be very proud of. I am from Milwaukee, married my husband in 2005 in Toronto and we moved to Canada in 2007. It was a very difficult decision to move and we miss family and friends tremendously. The notion that we were 2nd class citizens in the US was too much to overcome and the move was made. We are happy with our new home and not an eyebrow is ever raised at introductions. I see things changing, slowly, in the US but fear it will be quite a while before the LGBT community has equal rights.

What a small world -- Michael and I were married in Toronto as well. What a great city in a great country; no wonder you and your husband moved, Doug!!! I share your view that the pace of positive change for the LGBT community in the United States can be agonizingly slow; Michael and I still struggle with whether we should stay here and fight like hell or move to a place where our rights will be respected/protected and our marriage recognized. The jury's still out on that one.

Congratulations to you and your husband as well!!!!

I'm gratified to read such a delightful post. Congratulations to you, John and Michael, for your successful marriage.

There's little doubt that people are nervous about saying the right thing and end up using the wrong terminology to describe an LGBT person's spouse. Far too few locales have legalized marriage for us, so it's clearly still not an accepted practice for far too many citizens. Rebecca has made a great point in suggesting that people be educated by the LGBT community; they won't know if we don't tell them.

George, thank you for reading and for your kind words!! :-)

My partner and I have been together for 35+ years and have seen how we and others describe our relationship change over the years. In the beginning we refered to ourselves as boyfriends, after several years we used the term lovers or partners. Until we are allowed to legally marry in our state, (Maryland) I guess we'll stick with partners. As to how others refer to us, in our somewhat conservative part of Western Maryland most everyone knows us and if one is seen without the other it is usually questioned as to where's your "Other or Better Half". I've often heard and used this same terminology to describe our straight married friends. I guess that's good in a way, we're seen no differently than any other couple no matter what we are called. I think the longevity of our relationship and the fact that we're very involved in our small community has a lot to do with it.

Rick, congratulations to you and your partner for being together for so long! Over 35 years... wow. Michael and I hope to get there someday, too. I'm sure that you and he have opened many minds and changed many hearts just by being who you are, living and loving openly. :-)

Myrre Neuquer | December 20, 2010 11:00 AM

Hi there,
I really like your article, especially since I am from outside the USA and validity of same sex marriage is not much of an issue here. This means that in my country the words partner, husband and wife are used as synonyms. Lots of man/woman couples who are not married, lots of homosexual couples who are married etc etc.

The article did spark a question. You seem to be surrounded by acceoting, supportive people who will gladly aknowledge the validity of your marriage. Could it perhaps be possible that the reason they use 'partner' instead of 'husband' is to avoid any possible discussion on the rights of same-sex couples, LGBT movement, validity of marriage, which at the moment seems all the rage? Imagine this possible reaction: "Oh, are you *married*?......" Add awkward questions and the party is a huge success of course.

It seems strange to me that people who are supportive of your relationship suddenly diminish it in introducing you and your husband to their friends. Perhaps they hope that by using the word 'partner' they aknowledge the nature of your relationship (not 'just friends'), while at the same time avoiding any hot item discussion?

That, or you neglected to throw a really memorable party! ("They could be married, not sure. I don't remember the wedding.....")

Anyways, thanks for the article. If anything, it mught get some people to ask “erm, do I say 'partner' or 'husband’…”

Hi, Myrre! This sure beats trying to discuss this over Twitter, doesn't it? :-) Thank you for your kind words about my article.

Regarding your comment ("Could it perhaps be possible that the reason they use 'partner' instead of 'husband' is to avoid any possible discussion on the rights of same-sex couples, LGBT movement, validity of marriage, which at the moment seems all the rage?"), I'm sure that's a very likely possibility -- that people sometimes use "partner" instead of "husband" because they perceive "partner" as a more neutral term, and/or they want to avoid a debate or discussion of the hot-button issue of marriage equality.

For me, one reason that I insist on the use of "husband" (as I hope we all will insist on our preferred terms, whatever they may be), in addition to those that I've outlined in my article and comments, is that I believe that if I don't do so, I'm ceding to someone else the right to define my relationship rather than asserting my right to do so myself.

And incidentally, sometimes when people find out that Michael and I are married, they ask us "is it legal?" or something similar. I simply answer that our marriage is legal in Canada and all other jurisdictions around the world and within the U.S. where same-sex marriages are recognized, but not in Wisconsin, where we currently live.

Ok, I'm biased. I consider John and Michael two of my closest married friends. In our society, when a male marries, he is referred to has the "husband" of his spouse. John and Michael are married - end of discussion on that point as far as I'm concerned.

That said, another example of "What Do We Call Them?" comes to mind. When I was growing up (a long time ago), males were "Mr." and females were either "Miss" or "Mrs.". Now there is the "matrimonial neutral" "Ms." The only way to learn which title was preferred was by: a) asking b) being corrected after using the wrong one c) paying attention when someone close to the person introduced them.

If others have a problem with a woman introducing herself or being introduced as "Miss", "Mrs." or "Ms." that's THEIR problem. In my opinion, the very same holds true if a man refers to his husband or a woman refers to her wife.

There is a world of difference between "boy friend", "girl friend", "partner", and "spouse".
Hopefully, in the not too distant future, this particular "What Do We Call Them?" question will be a non-issue. A "husband" is married to his spouse. A "wife" is married to her spouse.

Exactly, Abe. Hopefully our society will stop trying to tell people how they can and can't define their relationships, or that some couples are worthy of being married while others don't merit inclusion within the institution or the term.

I'm grateful for your friendship and your strong advocacy for LGBT equality! :-)

Ronald Gillis | December 20, 2010 8:53 PM

Isn't it a wonderful joy to be having a discussion of this sort? To think,now you are married and the chat around the table isn't about same sex marriage but about how we should address you and your spouse.

Congratulations on your marriage and Happy Holidays!!!

So true. While we've still got a long way to go on LGBT rights, it's important every once in awhile to remember how far we've come in our struggle. Thanks for that reminder, Ronald, and for your congratulations. Happy holidays to you as well! :-)

Jessica Dompke | December 20, 2010 10:12 PM

It breaks my heart that all love isn't accepted. Our society needs as much love in it as possible so I for one believe that you and your wonderful husband deserve the utmost respect for openly loving one another. Your marriage is one that people should respect and admire because it is rare to find a couple that is willing to fight so hard for their love. So I say, correct away my friend, and keep correcting until they get it right!

Hear, hear. Love = Love = Love. Thank you for your kind words, and for standing with us in the fight for equality! I often say that opponents of same-sex marriage will lose if for no other reason than that they'll never be willing/able to fight harder against our marriages than we're willing to fight FOR them.

Matthew Haas | December 22, 2010 9:22 AM

A friend of mine (female, heterosexual) once told me that she prefers the term "partner" to describe her relationship because it implies equality in the marriage, and "husband and wife" imply that the husband is somehow superior to the wife.. For me, husband and husband or wife and wife is the preferable term since I think of the term "partners" as degrading and a way to satiate the GLBT community into 2nd-class citizen status. Interesting how our two "worlds" are going in opposite directions, isn't it? I'm even seeing stories out of France...Straight couples preferring civil unions to marriage.

For sure - there's definitely the women's rights perspective to consider with regard to marriage and terminology as well.

sore subject at the moment. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of words. Javier and I aren't married, but I use the term spouse or espouse. Comes from my Puerto Rican friend calling his wife his wife, long before they got married.... I've heard Javier use the word partner, which I don't like. Sounds too much like a business partner... You don't want to know what I call him around my rowdy straight friends. LOL