When Straight Couples Use The Term ‘Partner’

Happy couple smiling together outdoors

The rising prevalence of “partner” outside of the LGBTQ community says to me that the Gay Agenda is working: Queer people and our relationships are, indeed, redefining traditional marriage.

The first time I remember meeting a straight person who used the word “partner” was in college. My literature professor junior year was a woman with long blond hair who wore pencil skirts and knee-high boots that I coveted. On the rare occasions when she talked about her personal life, she always spoke of her “partner,” not her boyfriend or her husband. I wondered if she might be queer; she talked about feminist theory in the context of Romantic literature a lot, but she never gave me the small subtle nod of solidarity I tend to expect from fellow queers in public spaces. About halfway through the semester, she told an anecdote about a road trip with her partner; in the course of this story it became clear her partner was male.

“I like calling him my partner,” she said. “It makes people wonder, and I don’t tell them one way or the other. I’m fine with people thinking whatever they want.”

This was in 2008, just two years after my home state passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It’s almost difficult to remember how different the cultural context for queer relationships was only seven years ago. Today, nationwide marriage equality seems inevitable, but then, it was a distant dream.

At the time, many of the queer people I knew frowned on the use of “partner” to describe a straight relationship. For heterosexual couples—people who had the opportunity to marry if they so chose, people whose relationships were supported and uplifted by society as a whole—to use a word with roots in the extralegal commitments and families of the queer community felt like appropriation, like demanding to be included in the queer club while still enjoying the benefits of straight privilege. One queer woman I know said she just hates when straight people use the word “partner” because she gets excited about making a new queer friend, only to be disappointed.

I understand these points of view well, but I don’t share them. Personally, I love when straight people refer to their significant others as “my partner,” as quite a few of my straight friends do these days. Some of them use “partner” because they choose not to marry, but feel that “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are too casual to describe a lifelong committed relationship; others because they are married but shy away from the binary, patriarchal overtones of “husband” and “wife.”

The rising prevalence of “partner” outside of the LGBTQ community says to me that the Gay Agenda is working: Queer people and our relationships are, indeed, redefining traditional marriage.

I know a lot of LGBTQ folks feel that the mainstream gay rights movement’s focus on marriage equality is a nod to conservatism and “traditional family values” that have traditionally excluded us, a way of carving out space for ourselves within the existing hierarchy instead of dismantling that hierarchy and creating a more just world. There is validity to that point of view, and it’s crucial that we don’t stop fighting oppression just because we win on this particular front.

Still, I feel like the advent of “partner” as a term well beyond our own community’s use speaks to the fact that same-sex marriage and other queer relationship and family structures are revolutionary, not just inserting ourselves into the existing paradigm.

No one seems able to pinpoint exactly when queer people started using the word “partner” to refer to people with whom we have long-term committed romantic and/or sexual relationships, but it clearly arose as an alternative to words like “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse,” which same-sex couples were discouraged from using by a culture that did not offer legal or social recognition for our relationships. Thus, “partner” came to describe a relationship that didn’t care about society or about the law. It’s a renegade word for a renegade family structure.

I cringe when anyone, no matter how well-meaning, refers to me as Charlie’s “wife.” I don’t identify with that word at all. It doesn’t sound like someone I want to be. It sounds like my identity has been subsumed by my relationship. When someone says “wife,” I picture a very specific kind of person. For me, the word conjures June-Cleaver-esque middle-class white femininity, a certain kind of aesthetically pleasing docility and domesticity.

For you, it might be something somewhat different, but I’d be willing to bet there’s an image in your head of who a wife is, what she wears, how she interacts with her spouse. Same goes for “husband.” Partner, though—it’s wide open. Who can be a partner? Anyone who is working with someone else. To what end? It’s up to the individuals in question. Partner means charting your own course.

It’s certainly also true that many queer people have felt and continue to feel that “partner” represents a demotion from “spouse,” a consolation prize. Many of us have been using “husband” and “wife” all along, as a way of insisting that our families are no less important than those of straight people, despite their marginalized legal status. I understand wanting to use language that marks us as equal to straight people, but to me, equal to doesn’t necessarily mean the same as. I believe same-sex couples represent a radical opportunity to depart from prescribed gender roles within a relationship. As such, it’s important to me to use terminology that doesn’t presume those gender roles are still relevant.

And I think the same is true for many straight couples. If your relationship doesn’t depend on a fundamental disparity between the roles of “male spouse” and “female spouse,” but on the two (or more) of you approaching each other as individuals and equals, I think you should have access to terminology that reflects that equality. As same-sex couples continue to love, commit, and build families and lives together, regardless of gender, we create space for straight people to do the same.

I’m not trying to take “husband” or “wife” away from queer people who want them. Nor am I saying that straight people who use those terms are promoting sexism. But I think it’s worth questioning whether those words fit our lives today, and discarding them if they don’t.

When I hear someone I don’t know refer to their “partner,” I no longer assume that means they’re in a same-sex couple. I don’t assume it means they’re unmarried. I don’t assume anything except that they are sharing their lives and creating relationship models that work for them.

This is how same-sex couples are redefining marriage: We’re opening it up to be redefined by anyone who wants to share their lives. Marriage is evolving. Why shouldn’t the terms we use to describe it evolve too?

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.

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