For a while now, we’ve been getting requests to talk about what being a wife means from a queer perspective. And I’m beyond thrilled that Miranda stepped up and wrote about the issue of both having and being a wife. You’ll remember Miranda from her Wedding Undergraduate post where she realized why she was getting married in the first place when she got in a car crash (if you haven’t read that post, go and do that, because re-reading it made me cry). But today, Miranda tackles wife, and I am grateful. Because I’m lucky enough to spend a lot of time around the LGBTQ community, as a member of an LGBTQ synagogue, I feel like I constantly am forced to question what our partnership is and should be. I have to think about the parts of traditional partnership I want to embrace, and the parts that I want to reject. And because of that, I think our marriage is stronger. Which means, for those of you following along at home, I totally just said that gay marriage makes my marriage stronger. Take that religious right. WHAT.
And with that, I bring to Miranda, rocking it.
Okay, so here’s something that I’ve been rolling around for awhile: the term wife.
I think it’s something that we’ve all considered if we’ve considered marriage. What will it be like to be a wife? Will being a “wife” change who I am? Will it change other people’s perceptions of me when my spouse refers to me as “wife”?
At my wedding, people kept saying, “You’re a wife! Isn’t it strange? Did you ever think you would be a wife?” Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about being a wife, and most of the time I just laughed and said, “It’s less strange to BE a wife than it is to HAVE a wife!”
When we were engaged, I had a new and sort of simpler reality when talking about my relationship than I’d had before. Instead of “girlfriend,” which told people either “Hey, I’m totally gay” or “I have a friend and she is female and we evidently do stuff together sometimes,” I could now use “fiancee” which conveniently sounds exactly like “fiance”. It’s not that I needed or even wanted to hide my partner’s gender; it was just that this was the first opportunity I had to do so while still being honest. I didn’t have to consider the company or my safety or people’s reactions when talking to friends of friends or clients at work or people I’d just met who were making small talk. Small talk could stay small talk. “Oh yeah, my fiancee’s cat and my cat are starting to get along pretty well,” could be a conversation just about our cats.
Now we’re married and unfortunately for the comfort that earlier subtlety had provided, “wife” is spelled AND pronounced very differently from “husband.” Funny that.Now, if I want to refer to the person I am married to, I have a few options: wife, partner, spouse. And let’s be honest: none of these are subtle. When was the last time you heard someone in a heterosexual marriage refer to their husband or their wife as their spouse? Not often. I have heard it used in regular conversation only a handful of times, and it went something like this: “So, Larry, how’s your sister and her…uh, spouse?” There’s the pause, the hesitation, the “Is this the right term to use? Am I being politically correct?”
And then there’s “partner.” I appreciate how many people are trying to bring “partner” into the mainstream (Editors note: David and I refer to each other as ‘my partner’ at least half the time, and I totally encourage other mixed gender couples to do the same. Pow! Simple steps to equality). It’s the one term that it seems a lot of people are trying to use, and I think it’s often the most accurate. I mean, I DO often feel that Turtle is my partner, my partner in crime, my partner in fun, my partner in sexy sexy ways. That’s a lot of what marriage is, right? Finding your PARTNER. That said, the term “life partner” makes me want to gag, and, yes, the term partner can get confusing when there might also exist a business partner. On top of that, one person at the APW meetup said, “Partner is just so DRY.” And maybe we can change that by using it a lot, but… it’s still a work in progress. Because until everyone is using it, it’s still separate but not equal.
So that brings us to wife. Wife has no subtlety. Wife tells people who I am, and what my relationship is to Turtle. There is no second-guessing, no confused curiosity (“um… you mean business wife?” is not really an issue); it is quite clear what I mean.
And so it’s interesting, with all of this in mind, to notice the habits I have fallen into when referring to her.
When I am filling out information on an application or medical form and I have to put down our “relation”, I always say spouse. When I talk to straight people that I only sort of know or am just meeting, I always say wife. And when I meet other gay couples… I always say partner.
For awhile this confused and sort of embarrassed me. I mean, you guys! We’re married! We have a marriage license and share health insurance (and are taxed on it, but oh well) and can even do our taxes as married (oh, um, at least we can in Massachusetts. Funny story). Bitterness about all of that aside, Turtle is technically my wife, and it seemed like, by falling back on “partner,” I was hiding that. So recently, Turtle asked me, “What is that ABOUT?”
Here’s what I finally realized: As a group of people who don’t automatically have permission to marry, GLBTQ folks HAVE to think about marriage and what it means to us. We have to think about marriage if we’re doing it or not doing it. Are we on the side of the people fighting for gay marriage/marriage equality, or are we on the side of “marriage is not the important issue here”? Even if we’re not planning to do it, even if we’re not in a relationship, if we have considered a relationship with someone of the same gender, if we have considered that our sexual orientation is not straight, I think we have considered some of the societal repercussions of being open about it. And for many, many of us, it means not having the legal right to marry.
As my wife says, “even though in Massachusetts, I’m married to my wife, in Kentucky Sue and Jane might be married in their hearts but not in the eyes of the law.”
So I say partner because I want to be on Sue and Jane’s side. I want to support the people who can’t get married, but who have someone they would marry if they could, and I want to support the people who are staying out of this whole marriage business until it’s all figured out (the “it’s only marriage when it’s federally recognized, so why bother in just one state” side). When I say partner, I say it because it’s a word that expresses who Turtle is to me, and it does so quite accurately to the people I say it to. And when I say wife, I hope that I am coming out to someone who maybe didn’t consider that I could have a wife. I am hoping that someone will maybe ask the next person what their fiancee does without using gendered pronouns. I am hoping that someone will see me, and realize I’m married to a woman, and that my marriage hasn’t threatened theirs, and maybe realize that marriage equality is important enough for them to fight for as an ally.
I still struggle a bit with wife. The word itself brings to mind a fifties housewife, and that is not at all how I see myself or my wife. But the more I use the word, the more I reference my wife (“I need to check in with my wife!” “Oh, my wife is picking up our dinner.” “My wife and I are going on vacation.”), the more it becomes mine, and the more it describes the person I need it to: my wife.