'Husband,' 'Partner,' 'Boyfriend': What's in a Word?

I recently married the man I've been in a relationship with for 18 years. People ask if life is "different" now that we're "legal." The answer is mostly no. One change, however, that is very real is the mild dilemma of how we call one another.
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I recently married the man I've been in a relationship with for 18 years. People ask if life is "different" now that we're "legal." The answer is mostly no. When you've been together for 18 years (living together for 17 of those) you know one another beyond intimately and you bond profoundly. You've worked out many things -- and you're still working out many things. A piece of paper from the state doesn't do much to further that, even as it does give us important rights and benefits we've been denied. (I'm not, by the way, negating how getting married might be transformative for couples who've not been together as long as we have, or any others; it's just not a real marker for us.)

One change, however, that is very real is the mild dilemma of how we call one another. "Husband," to me, just sounds a bit odd. Maybe I just need to get used to it, like any word that feels awkward at first. Am I self-loathing for thinking it's too heterosexual -- perhaps deep down thinking we're not worthy of it -- or does that make me forward-thinking for resisting acceptance of a word which delineates gender and denotes possession in an institution that once did (and, in some places, still does) allow ownership of one spouse by another? A lot of gay and lesbian couples, married and unmarried, don't like "husband" and "wife." Perhaps it was that reticence which confused the Associated Press a few months back when it had, at first, refused to use "husband" and "wife" for gay couples unless they used the words themselves.

So far, a month into the marriage, the word usage has been touch and go. I've found myself sometimes saying "partner" then correcting myself and saying "husband," such as when I was recently referring to David on my radio program. I've also found myself saying it with a pause, as if I have to let the person I'm speaking with know that this is new and that I'm not totally sold on it: "My... umm... husband." (Sometimes that's followed by a quick explanation about how we've not settled on a word yet.) Discussing business matters with insurance brokers or the bank on the phone, I'll say "husband" straight out; that's about the financial aspects of marriage. But at other times, particularly in casual conversation, I find that I still just stick with partner.

When we were younger, "boyfriend" was a fine term. It works for young people, and I actually still like it. But as you get older it just doesn't cut it when you're calling each other "boys." Partner came into usage more widely some time in the '90s. I remember at first thinking it was cold and businesslike, but then we got used to it. Part of that experience, for me, was living in New Zealand for a couple of years. David, a film studies professor, had taken his first job at a university there. In New Zealand, which had been further ahead on civil rights for women, gays and indigenous peoples, feminists had long ago successfully pushed aside the terms "husband" and "wife."

In New Zealand at that time (circa 2000), it was common for married heterosexual men and women to refer to a "partner" in conversation. Often, even in news reports, a woman's "partner" would be referred to when discussing the spouse to whom she was legally married, or a married straight couple might be referred to as "partners." There was even this term "de facto partners" to describe heterosexual (and homosexual) couples who were living together but not married. If you look at official government websites in New Zealand, dealing with immigration and other issues, you'll see "partner" used most often for married and unmarried couples, though "spouse" is used as well. (Speaking with friends in New Zealand recently, they tell me that "husband" and "wife" are being used a bit more now, and that's interesting considering New Zealand has also legalized gay marriage.)

"Partner," as cold as it is, does connote equality, doesn't mark gender and doesn't imply possession. It also made things easier. In New Zealand, when I would take a cab and chat with the driver and mention that my partner taught at the university, I didn't have to reveal I was gay -- out myself -- and wonder if the conversation's tenor would suddenly shift because the driver was uncomfortable or a homophobe. So, is that it? Am I resistant to "husband" because it forces you to out yourself in a situation, and in that sense, is it actually a bolder and more radical word for gays? I'm not sure of that because, in the U.S. , "partner" pretty much outs you -- though the listener could, I suppose, think you're talking about your business partner.

Speaking about it with people over the past month, it seems to me a lot of married gay and lesbian couples still use the word "partner." So, will those of us who are gay or lesbian just get used to "husband" and "wife," particularly in future generations, or will gays help to mix it up a bit, and maybe even influence some straight people to use "partner?" And does it really matter?

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