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When It Comes To Queer Love, Our Word Choices Matter

Perhaps most important is the message that our word choice sends to those who we don’t know are listening.

We were waiting to see an apartment in Queens in grueling summer heat when the cool-guy broker showed up, sweaty and texting. We all wiped our hands on our pants before introducing ourselves. Kaitlyn had set up the viewing, so she went first.

“I’m Kaitlyn, and this is my fiancée, Camille.”

“Oh, I was expecting a couple,” he said, shaking my hand.

“We are a couple,” Kaitlyn responded. I stood by, befuddled, and the broker shook it off before showing us a two-bedroom that we did not take.

Surely, this was a fluke. One presumably straight dude got a little heat-weary, or maybe he didn’t hear her introduce me. But it’s also a reminder of the worst thing about being engaged: The word “fiancée” is so banally un-queer when you say it out loud.

Kaitlyn and I met in journalism school, so we’re both geeks about words. In some ways, our relationship has been one big experiment in linguistics. When we started dating years ago, “girlfriend” felt like the appropriate term. It was casual, fun, and inherently gendered. When we moved in together, I still called her my girlfriend with my friends, but I’d introduce her as my “partner” to strangers to convey that we were serious. And once we sign the papers and make it official, I will call her my “wife” at every chance I get.

I’m proud to have built a relationship with another woman, something I never thought I could do confidently, let alone with the approval of the federal government. After a tumultuous closeted adolescence, I’m loudly out in every aspect of my life, including my pride in my Big Gay Relationship. But before Kaitlyn and I were fiancées, when we were still calling each other girlfriend, it wasn’t easy to convey the queerness of our relationship to strangers.

Some older people still take girlfriend for its original definition, a synonym for a friend who’s a girl. Some people judge my fairly feminine presentation to mean they must be hearing me wrong. And apparently, even being told the women standing in front of you are fiancées is hard to grasp if it’s hot enough outside.

Hopefully, none of that will be a problem when we’re married. There’s nothing ambiguous about the word “wife.” Nobody will wonder if they misheard me, or discount my word choice because I’m wearing a dress that day. But in the meantime, we’re improvising, reading the room to choose our words and affirming our relationship over and over in the process.

I came out quietly as bisexual toward the end of high school. It took a long time to choose between the identifiers bisexual and gay — I’m still struggling with it today — but one reason I couldn’t imagine being a lesbian is that I wanted to get married one day, and I just didn’t see that happening with another woman. It’s not that my attraction to women couldn’t reach far enough to lead me to a committed relationship — it can and it has — but I couldn’t bear to be so markedly othered for the rest of my life.

Being bisexual gave me the option, or so I thought, of flying under the radar. And for a while, I was certain I’d end up with a man. But you don’t choose who you love, and here I am, proudly preparing to marry the woman of my dreams.

The first queer, married woman I ever met was the director of the choir I joined my freshman year of college. When I was considering signing up, someone described her to me as a “really cool lesbian who talks about her wife a lot.” That tipped me over. And she did talk about her, all the time, using that exact word — wife.

At the time, only five states had legalized marriage equality, not including Illinois, where she lived. She told us that her officiant had declared “by the power not yet vested in me” before pronouncing them married, if not legally, then emblematically, emotionally, socially. I knew then that there was something radical about loving a person when all the structures around you exist to keep that from happening.

Aubrey Blanche, 27, is the Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at a global software company, so she says she’s always thinking about the norms and institutions that privilege some people over others. She got engaged about three months ago and says she’s adamant about asserting her queerness when talking about her relationship.

“I used to say ‘partner’ just to avoid discussions [about my identity],” says Blanche, who’s based in San Francisco. “[And then] I realized . . . I’m remarkably safe. I’m upper-middle-class and white and have a nice corporate job. Me not coming out constantly was doing an incredible disservice to people who actually don’t have the safety to do it. You can’t normalize something that you pretend doesn’t exist.”

She’s getting married in September of next year, when she says she’ll embrace the w-word in all its queer glory.

“Oh yeah, I’m totally going to say ‘wife,’ like I’m going to make it a thing. Because if you’re uncomfortable, I want you to be uncomfortable about it,” Blanche says. “No one has an obligation to advocate for their own group, but given that I’m in a position of such relative privilege, it’s important that I do it.”

Before getting married, a former colleague of mine used to refer to her then-fiancée as her pre-wife, which I love and use whenever I remember it. For all of five minutes I called Kaitlyn my sheancée, but we vetoed that. Truth be told, I’m still not used to our new relationship status, so I often still refer to her as my girlfriend.

In any case, my use of gendered words is always deliberate. After years of thinking I’d never get here, I don’t want anyone to confuse that she’s a she, and so am I.

At the same time, we’re in the midst of a gender-neutral revolution, from bathrooms to pronouns to legal gender markers. That includes language. Queer and straight people alike can invoke neutral words like partner, spouse, or even internet-hatched terms like datemate to purposefully un-gender their relationships.

“People don’t assume the gender of your partner and it further normalizes queer relationships,” says Max Rapaport, 26, who is genderfluid. “And then using neutral pronouns upon being asked the gender of your partner normalizes nonbinary genders as well.”

Kimmie and Sandra were married earlier this year in New York. Kimmie is nonbinary and genderqueer, and Sandra isn’t. For both of them, they said, the words “partner” and “spouse” are more affirming, more equitable, and more reflective of their relationship.

“I feel like if I were to [say] ‘wife,’ it has connotations to me of binary relationships, whether it’s male/female or female/female or male/male,” says Kimmie, 28. “Which I don’t feel like I’m in. Even if she’s my wife, it implies that I might be a wife or a husband, and I don’t like either term for myself.”

“I don’t really like to be called ‘wife’ in public for official settings,” adds Sandra, 28. “It’s like belonging to someone, [it’s] patriarchal.”

This evokes one opinion on marriage equality from within the queer community itself. Having equal marriage rights certainly normalizes queer relationships, but to some, it’s a form of unwanted assimilation. Marriage, after all, is a historically oppressive institution, and so is the language that’s been used to describe it.

In her 2013 book, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner writes:

“At its very base, marriage is a patriarchal institution. Its goal is to decide and maintain male ownership and control of women, transferring the woman from her father to her husband. A dash of linguistics might be enlightening here, as the original meaning of the word husband relates to husbandry — ownership of land and animals, while one of original meanings of wife is ‘bitch’ and contains a root indicating shame.”

Points like Eisner’s are among the reasons some queer people opt out of legal relationship recognition, and its terminology, altogether. That leaves gendered words like “girlfriend” and “boyfriend,” which Rapaport says can be read as juvenile, or a host of nongendered alternatives. Words like “partner” and “spouse,” therefore, are mature, accurate, and even political descriptors in queer relationships, state-recognized or not.

For Kimmie and Sandra, entering into a loving marriage while actively challenging the institution’s prescriptive language is a happy medium.

“The fact that we got married is a manifestation of our love and a decision that we made, but it’s not the only way to be in a relationship,” Kimmie says to Sandra. “We were partners before, we’re still partners, and we will [always] be partners, and being married is a part of that, but it’s not the only part.”

One of my all-time favorite responses to the marriage equality movement, written by Carina Kolodny back in 2014, is an examination of what it truly means to be a partner in a marriage. In an open letter on the Huffington Post to the conservative “enemies of marriage equality,” Kolodny wrote:

“Marriage equality will, in time, fundamentally destroy ‘traditional marriage,’ and I, for one, will dance on its grave. It’s not a terribly difficult conclusion to draw. As same-sex couples marry, they will be forced to re-imagine many tenets of your ‘traditional marriage.’ [ . . . ] How do we assign these roles equitably? How do we cultivate a partnership that honors each of our professional and personal ambitions? As questions continually arise, heterosexual couples will take notice — and be forced to address how much ‘traditional marriage’ is built on gender roles and perpetuates a nauseating inequality that has no place in 2014.”

By playing with the language we use to talk about our partners, whether in the context of marriage or not, we’re doing the same thing. There’s a set of cultural codes that accompany the word “wife”: child-rearing, homemaking, financial dependence, and, of course, the assumption of heterosexuality. Likewise, the traditional husband archetype is financially supportive but emotionally absent, the family figurehead who doesn’t pull his weight and treats his wife like a plaything. But for queer people — especially women, who have historically gotten the short end of the marriage stick — reclaiming words like “husband” and “wife” gives us the power to redefine what they mean, personally and politically.

Similarly, the words “partner” and “spouse” abolish gendered assumptions altogether. They show that love exists outside of the terms and conditions that were used to establish relationships centuries ago, getting to the core of what modern relationships are all about: partnership. They allow for fluidity and flexibility in identity, and they acknowledge that a relationship isn’t defined by the confines of a marriage certificate.

Both these approaches are valid, both are intentional, and both challenge the world to rethink what we’ve all been taught about relationships.

Perhaps most important, though, is the message that our word choice sends to those who we don’t know are listening. When my choir director spoke candidly about her wife more than seven years ago, it flipped a switch that told me I could do that, one day, and be accepted. As Blanche said, queer people are not responsible for educating others about queer lives, but for those who can do so safely, it can be transformative to show others they aren’t alone.

It’s taken years for me to feel comfortable being gay in public, and that includes being queerly partnered. But now that I’ve found my forever-person, I realize how important it is to me to honor that we’re both women, despite countless forces telling us we’re wrong. And if mentioning my wife to a stranger one day helps to validate that love, maybe for an eavesdropping closeted teenager, I can’t wait to do it.