Friday, April 30, 2010

Husband, wife, spouse, or partner

Sometimes when I'm talking to someone I know online, but to whom I don't care to reveal any more about my personal life than necessary, I might refer to Siobhan as my "partner" instead of "wife". Usually when this comes up, it's someone who doesn't even know if I'm male or female (though they might very well have an assumption on the subject). Maybe this makes them assume I'm gay or lesbian, which is fine with me.

It makes me wonder if gay and lesbian people feel constrained about what they can say. If talking to someone with whom they choose not to reveal their sexual orientation, for whatever reason, they can't make completely innocuous comments (like "I was late for work because I had to pick up my husband") without running into the sticky situation. Saying "husband" (if male, or "wife" if female) definitely reveals something, and in places where gay marriage isn't legal or accepted, it's also likely to lead to confusion. Saying "partner" seems to strongly imply the same thing (though at least avoiding the legal quagmire where gay marriage isn't yet legal). So you either avoid the issue by not saying anything, or you have to lie, or you have to reveal something.

Someday, anyone will be able to say either "wife" or "husband" without getting even a second thought, but we're a long way off from that day, it probably won't be in my lifetime. Maybe "spouse" will become more widely used (right now it feels forced and stilted since we only encounter it on things like forms generally). But until then, would it be good if we all tried to get in the habit of saying "partner," whether gay or straight, legally married or deprived of the legal right? Partially as a show of solidarity, but more to try to help arrange that everyone can speak freely without it revealing anything.

I suppose it's unlikely for enough people to adopt the habit for it to make a difference. But I still wonder how gay and lesbian people in committed relationships would feel about the idea. If enough people did it for it to make an impact, would that really help, or would it be going the wrong direction? And if not enough people did it, would it still be appreciated, even if only as a token gesture of solidarity, or would it instead seem like I was trying to co-opt something to which I am not entitled? I always find inclusion/exclusion terminology questions like this hard to predict.

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