I said "girlfriend" recently, as in "my girlfriend." It was full of affection, but I was corrected by a gay man. Surely I didn't mean girlfriend, he said. Implicit in this was the assumption--to me, a straight assumption--that a girlfriend is not a significant other. For that, he wanted the W word.
Whereas I like girlfriend. Girlfriend isn't insignificant; it means we're still dating, still having fun! Wow, haven't politics changed.
Twenty-five years ago, Betty Berzon published Permanent Partners. She wrote about the daring and fortitude of gay and lesbian couples who lived in committed relationships for years. They did so, not only without any legal recognition (even “domestic partnerships” were rare then), but often without social recognition. Their families of choice might be supportive, but in the larger world, the relationships were closeted. Even many gay people tended to assume, in those days, that relationships didn’t last, and to ask “Are you and X still together?” when they would not have asked this of a heterosexual wife or husband.
Fast forward to 2013 and a growing number of the United States have same-sex marriage. Gays and lesbians have the option (not the obligation) to commit to the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other couple. Many have embraced an equivalence to heterosexual marriage that was undreamed of in Betty Berzon’s world. Commitment ceremonies, yes, but not weddings. And would a gay or lesbian person ever refer to their “husband” or “wife”?
I don’t miss inequality or persecution. I have as much fun at a wedding as anybody else. Sometimes I even call what we had a “wedding,” because other people do and, well, it’s just easier. They mean well. They are being supportive, saying that my relationship is equal to a traditional marriage. And I love them for that.
But what really lights my fire is the radical, the dissenting voice. The different. The self-determining. And for this, nothing beats lover for me.
Roberts’ Rules of Lesbian Living states: “The word lover is always more than straight people really want to know.” Not apologizing for that is part of being different. Lover means something different to straight people; but it was our word. It is sexual, liberated. Queer.
To some extent, partner works this way in the U.S.A. If an American has a “partner,” that tends to mean a same-sex partner. But this is not true in other countries. You can buy a “Happy birthday to my partner” card in Britain, but it isn’t a gay card. It isn’t there to make us feel included. Most “partners” in this country are long-term heterosexual couples, who just don’t choose to get married.
Betty Berzon thought that partner was an imperfect term, and I agree. I still think it sounds like we opened a dry-cleaning business together. The thing about America, though, is that same-sex marriage is important there because marriage is important there. America is essentially a conservative country, and marriage is a conservative institution.
In the U.S., it still is not typical to have a “partner” if you are of the opposite sex. It somehow is not real enough, committed enough, until you marry that person. No wonder same-sex marriage has become the be-all and end-all of equality in that country.
I believe everyone should have that choice, no doubt about it, but I am troubled by the belief that marriage is what proves we have arrived as equal citizens. Gay and lesbian Americans can still be fired, lose their homes or custody of their children for being who they are. Gays and lesbians who are not in a relationship, or not interested in getting married, are also our community. We can dance at your wedding without ever acquiring a wife.
So hats (and other things) off to lovers, people. I love lover, for the very reason it is too much information for some. It is our word. We chose it. Just as we chose our lovers, and the way we built relationships with them, piece by piece, without the wholesale support of society or law.