Marriage equality and language

With the gay marriage debate all over but the tossing of the bouquet, I have begun to wonder about language: how will it change to adapt and codify the new reality?

We went through the same kind of thing back when couples started living together instead of getting married at all: is she your “girlfriend”? “Roommate”? I had one friend in college who insisted on introducing her boyfriend as her LOVER, said practically exactly like that. It made me giggle then, and it still does. (She still introduces James as her lover, forty years later.)

Most of society has settled for “partner,” and in fact gay couples have benefitted from that so far.  But now we’re talking matrimony, and “partner” has already been codified as “unmarried sexytime person,” so that won’t really do. (Side note: when someone I don’t know well talks to me about their partner, there is always that slippery moment when I listen extra sharp to establish context: is he telling me he’s gay and in a committed relationship, or is he talking about the guy with whom he owns and operates the Harley-Davidson franchise?) (Or both?)

I brought up the topic last night in a discussion, and my lovely first wife promptly epitomized the problem by framing it as, “Which one’s the husband and which one’s the wife?”

That lays bare rather explicitly our sexual assumptions about it all, doesn’t it? It seems to me, I offered, that the first step is to disconnect what goes on in the bedroom (or at least our curiosity about it) from the terms we use in invitations, announcements, and office chitchat. It is not necessary for one person to be the “husband” and one the “wife” in a marriage, if by that we mean fulfilling traditional sexual roles.

We already have a useful term, of course, in “spouse.” Just like “partner,” it wouldn’t be hard for society to begin to prefer the gender-neutral term, but I suspect that for quite a while yet, we’re all still going to be curious about which flavor spouse we’ve invited to dinner.

Using “spouse” as a society would also help us reign in those who might insist on flaunting their sexytimes, which is not in good taste no matter who you are. A same-sex couple who insist on being called “husband” and “wife” are dragging the terms right back into traditional sex role territory that we should be glad to escape. We get it: you’re having sex. What no one wants to know (about any relationship) is the nature of the sex you’re having. It would be like a straight couple insisting on being referred to as “mistress” and “slave” outside the confines of their bedroom. What would the Dowager Countess say?

Not only that, but that way madness lies: if Joe tells me all about what he and his wife did over the weekend, and then Joe’s wife turns out to be a barrel-chested lumberjack, I think I am right to declare shenanigans. There’s also then the spectacle of two men claiming each other as “wife,” and on and on. Too much granularity when all we really need to know is whether you’re living with someone as partner or spouse, and if so, what gender they are just so we can be polite whenever we’re chatting about the weekend.

My prediction is that for a long while we’ll call all men who get married “grooms” and “husbands,” and women will be “brides” and “wives,” alternating with “spouse” when it feels right. Of course, it will all get easier over time: we will already know that Joe is married to Brett, or that Susan has a girlfriend, or who Dale means when he refers to his lovely first wife.

And eventually, we’ll simply ask our new coworker if he’s married and if the answer is yes, then, “Why don’t you ask your spouse to join us for drinks Friday afternoon?” without wondering in the least which flavor is going to show up at Alamo Jack’s.

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