Girlfriend, partner, spouse, sweetie, wife. What do I call the person to whom I made a lifelong commitment? Our caterer, who was awesome in all ways, did have a peculiar habit of calling K my “mate,” which always made me imagine her as a sexy werewolf ripping off her three piece suit under the demon moon. And my dad, who loves all things French, likes to call K “son partenaire” with a real Gallic influence on each syllable. But I think that really only works if you’re an amiable gentleman who likes wearing monogrammed pink turtlenecks, so for the moment, I’ve been using wife.
Last week at a conference, I ran into an old public health colleague. We exchanged pleasantries in the hallway and he asked what I’d been up to, and I told him I’d gotten married, and he responded with the world’s most ridiculous yet popular response. “Congrats! Who’s the lucky guy?”
Ugh. Can we launch a movement to stop saying this? This is dumb to say to anyone who’s just gotten married, not just the gays. First of all, it doesn’t really make sense. The person you’re saying it to is likely not your close friend, otherwise you’d know this news, so why would you think you’d recognize their lucky guy’s name? If you’re looking for a space-filler phrase, why not just leave it at a hearty congratulations? And secondly, queers are getting married all over the place now (huzzah Illinois and Hawaii!), and thus I’m probably not going to be the only married gay person you know, and you’re going to be cringing in embarrassment when I calmly respond, “I don’t think you know my wife, actually, but, hopefully you’ll meet her at some point.”
(Tangent: while we’re at it, can we also stop calling newborn babies “heartbreakers,” as in, “He’s going to be one hell of a ladies’ man!” Why are you talking like that about someone who’s fourteen hours old? That fourteen-hour-old isn’t even aware that their eyes are crossed at that very moment, let alone other potential baby dates of either gender. If you think the baby’s cute, say the baby’s cute, and skip talking about their future sex life.)
I’m being flippant, but when the subject of my recent wedding comes up in conversation, I do reference “my wife,” though this wasn’t something I necessarily planned. In thinking about why, I think I do this for two reasons. For one, it gives me a little shiver of excitement. Our marriage is only six weeks old, and I like having a wife, or rather, I like having K as my wife.
Moreover, I think it’s a little revolutionary, being a lady with a wife. “Wife” is an easy way to ensure that I provide the person I’m talking to with an instant, immediate understanding of both my sexuality and my relationship. If I say that I have a partner or spouse, you might still be wondering about their gender. And you might not ascribe our recent commitment with the seriousness that we do.
Last month the APW staff had a number of really interesting email discussions about October’s monthly theme, feminism. At one point we were discussing the ways that feminism can be strategic, like how two people can generally agree on the same ultimate goals of equality, but pick and choose different pieces of the movement to throw their own energy behind. As a queer person, I see the use of the word “wife” as a bit of a strategic one. It’s not my ideal word, sure. But I deeply believe in raising awareness, and I’m willing to use the mainstream label so that people are crystal clear about my sexuality and my family. I spend a lot of time correcting people about my sexuality, and using “wife” improves my queer visibility, even in a five minute hallway conversation. Hopefully my former colleague will have a split-second of awareness the next time he presumes heterosexuality. And that, in turn, goes a little way towards improving visibility for the queer community at large.
There’s just one problem with this strategic theory, which is that the wife in question, K, is ardently, deeply, enthusiastically opposed to being one.
Well. Now doesn’t that mess up my neatly packaged queer-ish theory.
K and I, you might remember, rarely agreed on language around our recently momentous event. She called our wedding a legally binding clambake and she called our engagement a “time when we tell our beloveds that we’re having a party to celebrate our commitment” (I am so into subverting the dominant paradigm but why is it so LONG?!). When we were talking about whether things have changed now that we’re married (short version: I think they have, she thinks they haven’t; she pointed out that we’re still arguing about semantics so see, they haven’t changed. My wife, everybody! Captain of the debate team!).
In all seriousness, though, I’m not sure you can have a wife if said wife doesn’t want to be one.
The thing is, I absolutely understand her efforts to reframe mainstream perceptions of what a long-term commitment looks and sounds like. She remains deeply ambivalent about the traditional marriage model and all the loaded terminology therein. She’s more interested in seeing society move towards alternative relationships than putting all of the value on married twosomes. But she’s fiercely loyal to me, and I don’t need her to wear the wife label to prove her devotion, the same way I didn’t need her to wear a wedding band (but I sure do like how handsome she looks with one on). I don’t doubt, for a moment, that every day she wakes up and makes the active choice to be with me, this day and all the next. And while I don’t mind identifying as a wife (a reclaimed one, obviously), I don’t really feel a need for her to call me as such. Although I firmly ruled out her suggestion to “just keep using girlfriend.”
Also? Even as we continue to ditch the baggage of the word, wife is, well, just about as far away from her gender expression as you can get. While she does do all the cooking for this lazy broad, the only time I’ve ever seen her in mascara is a particularly fetching drag outfit from her years in New Orleans, and her greatest accomplishment will go down as the time the car service ran out of gas in Windsor Terrace and she hopped out to PUSH THE CAR TO THE GAS STATION. Excuse me while I fan myself. Hunk, yes, traditional wife, no. (And look at me ascribing wearing makeup and not liking to push cars to traditional models of femininity! God this shit is complicated.)
It’s an interesting time to be queer and recently married. I have no doubt we’ll see same-sex marriage become fully federally and state recognized in our lifetimes, and maybe in a few years “spouse” will become so widely used that we’ll drop the problematic “wife” all together. But, and here’s the rub: if the traditions explicitly exclude me, I feel weird about knocking on the closed doors.
And at the same time, if everyone else gets one, I kind of want a wife too.
Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell, from Elisabeth’s personal collection