As a straight, married woman, I often refer to my husband as my partner. Sari, in your recent post on The Sisterhood, you wrote that you’re discomfited by heterosexuals’ use of the term “partner” to refer to their significant other.
I’ve used the term consciously not because I wanted to steal anything semantic from gay folks, but because I was trying to make a subtly intentional point about the nature of our relationship. That is, flouting the unfortunate American norm, my husband is my total partner in parenting and keeping our home; we both work outside the home as well.
He does about 98% of the cooking — he loves to do it, and to satisfy his slightly OCD need to have things done just so, insists on washing the dishes. I’m no slob, but the guy even sometimes remakes the bed because I apparently haven’t made it well enough. I, on the other hand, am in charge of laundry (and am particular myself about not mixing whites and colors) and do our family’s bookkeeping, along with what feels like the endless stream of paperwork involved with having three kids in various schools and summer camps.
When it comes to parenting, we really share responsibilities. He probably changed nearly as many diapers as I did, and is equally likely to tuck our children in at night. I buy the kids’ clothes, but he does all the grocery shopping. Luckily for me, particularly because he grew up in the very traditional world of Lubavitch Crown Heights, my husband seems to have no embedded bias about conventional gender roles.
It’s hard for straight people to know what we’re supposed to be using these days. If he hasn’t already, Larry David could do a whole episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” around it.
“Partner” is also the best term to use when you’ve just met someone who you think is probably gay but don’t want to run the risk of getting that one wrong. The term “spouse” just sounds too bureaucratic to use comfortably in conversation.
A hetero who counts lesbians among my good friends and a gay couple as our downstairs tenants, I believe strongly that gays and lesbians should have absolutely equal civil rights of every kind. But I admit to some discomfort when a gay man calls his male spouse his husband. Why? Because it leads to the mental question of “Well then who’s the wife?” I know is an awful, outmoded notion but the one that pops into my (and, perhaps, most straight people’s) head nonetheless.
So you see, the nomenclature to use in these transitional times for gays is confusing to we straights, too. But the transition of language to meet — or lead — changing social norms is nothing new. You can read more in this Wilkipedia entry about the transition of the word gay.
Maybe a few years from now, once California’s Proposition 8 has been overturned and same-sex couples can be married in all of the 50 states, and never again have to worry about visiting their partner/spouse/husband/wife in the hospital, or about their legal status as a parent of the children they’ve had together, we’ll have the language all figured out.
It will probably be just in time for things to change, somehow, again.