‘Lover,’ ‘Partner,’ ‘Main Squeeze’: Introducing Your Significant Other In The Age Of Diversity

Families that don’t fit the traditional definitions should be able to manage an introduction without it feeling like a Three Stooges episode.

The new millennium has been transformative for LGBTQ couples in many ways. When I came out as a lesbian in the mid-90s, I believed that I was destined to live life on the fringes. But same-sex marriages, legalized adoption, and general gains in tolerance over the last 20 years pushed me out of the fringes and into the school pickup lane. Along with my partner Valerie and son Bobby, I feel like a typical nuclear family, albeit one that occasionally (but not usually) raises some eyebrows at school functions.

I only wish the language of introductions kept pace with social transformation.

Fifteen years ago, when Valerie first met my family, my brother pulled me aside soon after our arrival to ask how he should introduce her. “I want her to feel welcome, but I just don’t know the gay lingo,” he sheepishly and sweetly announced.

I didn’t know the lingo either. “Friend” was too vague. “Partner” was too permanent for our still new relationship. Through the process of elimination I chose “girlfriend” even though it is also used as a platonic designation.

Worse alternatives exist. A couple of years after my brother wrestled with the lingo of LGBTQ relationships, a friend of mine at work stumbled over Valerie’s title when recounting a funny story at the water cooler. I listened helplessly as he stuttered, “Valerie is Anne’s…um…um.”

I silently coached him as he struggled to define our relationship.

“Partner,” I thought.

“Friend,” I mentally urged him.

“Even roommate.”

But no, he landed on another word: “Valerie is Anne’s lover,” he said.

Half of the people in the conversation, including me, turned and busied themselves with work. The funny story fizzled out. I laughed about the moment later, but at the time, I was mortified.

A complete prude, I was embarrassed to have my sex life referenced in a formal setting. More generally I also blanch at having the most significant relationship in my life reduced to a sexual relationship.

But I wasn’t mad at my friend. I was irritated with the linguistic minefield that comes with describing LGBTQ relationships.

Valerie and I were married in Canada years before marriage was legal in the United States. I pointedly refused to adopt the term “wife” because adopting common language might blur the distinction between a marriage recognized in the United States and the symbolic wedding we had in Toronto.

After our marriage was legally recognized, I still rejected the term “wife” because I was unwilling to describe our relationship in patriarchal terms. “Partner” describes a more equal relationship.

When Valerie and I are with our son, the problem shifts from defining our relationship as a couple to identifying ourselves as co-mamas to him. Bobby calls us Mama V and Mama A, but on multiple occasions that has been misheard as Mama A and B and interpreted as a maternal ranking system. We have actually been asked how we decided who the “A” mama is. The idea that we are equally sharing motherly duties is a difficult sell.

“We’re both mom” is Valerie’s favorite phrase. It’s not iron clad. One of Bobby’s teachers once responded by asking “how is that possible?” Time proved her to be an accepting person who greeted me with hugs and positive feedback about my parenting. Introductions are supposed to be familiar. Our unfamiliar language threw her and she blurted out an offensive (at the time) remark.

These awkward and lengthy explanations of our relationship make me feel pushed to the fringe again. Families that don’t fit the traditional definitions should be able to manage an introduction without it feeling like a Three Stooges episode. Here are some ideas for making it better.

Try Not to Introduce People According to Relationships: LGBTQ are not the only people who struggle with the language of relationships. I have a friend in her 50s who feels ridiculous referencing a “boyfriend.” Another friend in a long-term unmarried relationship found herself introducing her other as her “main man” at a wedding after other titles failed to translate.

So what if we just stopped introducing people this way? The idea of establishing a person’s identity according to who they belong to is outdated, belonging to an era when my mother signed checks as “Mrs. Robert Penniston,” using my father’s name to label herself.

A good introduction is really a stepping off point for two strangers to have a conversation. “Anne, this is Jeff. He’s from Kansas City, too” gives Jeff and I a bit of a common identity.

However, “Anne, this is Tom’s boyfriend Jeff” only gives me a name and a relationship, leaving me to make generic small talk instead of talking about a shared history.

When you can, give the more thoughtful introduction. When you don’t know enough about the people in question, introduce them by name only. It feels weird, but at least it treats both people as full individuals instead of one of them being an appendage attached by a relationship.

Strive for Clarity when Relationship Matters: Some introductions require that relationships be established. When Valerie and I take Bobby to a new doctor we announce “We are both legal parents.” Medical personnel need to know who is permitted to make decisions on our son’s behalf so we explicitly feed them that information. My partner carries the insurance for our family so when needed, I state that we are legally married.

Per the above, I have politically motivated preferences about how my relationship to Valerie is described. In social situations, I refer to Valerie as my co-mama. But the emergency room is no place for vagueness.

This strategy eliminates awkward questions. At times like this I really don’t care if the person I am talking to is inclusive or bigoted. I want them to do their job. A dry statement such as “we are both legal parents” encourages people to keep their opinions to themselves. We don’t get follow-up questions about our family structure nor do we receive anything less than a professional response. Both sides stick to the facts.

Ask For Preferences: If you are in a social situation where you absolutely must introduce people according to their relationships, the safest bet is to ask them how they label themselves. Valerie and I still have fond memories of my brother’s admission that he “didn’t know the lingo” of LGBTQ relationships. The question showed that he was proactively concerned about making us comfortable.

In that same conversation with my brother, thinking that he might be introducing us to more conservative people at his church and son’s school, I gave him the option to refer to Valerie as “my friend.” He rejected that suggestion, wanting instead to call us what we call ourselves. I have never offered that out to anyone since—it felt too good to be seen.

Over time, I expect the art of introductions to catch up with social change, providing us with standard terms for introducing diverse sets of people. In the meantime, we need to do what my brother did for Valerie and I all those years ago—pull people from the fringes and make them comfortable in our presence. Part of this involves talking about them as fully formed persons—not reducing them to someone’s wife/boyfriend/partner. The rest is about respecting how they wish to be described. It’s extra effort, but it keeps us on the path to a more inclusive world.

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.

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