By Shanna Katz
Sometimes, the English language just fails me. Aside from the ridiculous issue of pronouns (I mean, really, do we need to have masculine and feminine pronouns when we conjugate everything in neutrality anyways?), it’s so interesting trying to navigate in field of terminology to refer to people’s partners.
The other day, someone referred to my partner as my “wife.” Well, since both of us reject the concept of traditional marriage (versus our upcoming “Queer Celebration of Love”), it didn’t really fit, but even more so, it doesn’t fit because my partner doesn’t usually identify with either female or male identifies. My partner identifies as genderqueer, residing outside of that binary.
So the term girlfriend doesn’t really fit either. Moreover, as one of my straight friends revealed to me, calling her partner “boyfriend” after ten years of being together feels silly to her, and like she’s back in high school.
So now, when I talk to people, I always use the term partner. It is gender neutral, orientation neutral, and therefore, seems to have worked pretty well for us over the past few years. However, partner is also a pretty flexible and umbrella term (one of the reasons we like it), which then causes issues in other ways.
When my grandfather talks about his partner, he is referring to his former business partner. They made their way to the US after surviving Auschwitz, and started a hat business together. When he hears the term partner, his schema automatically files it as business partner.
Partner can be someone with whom you commit mischief – your partner in crime. Partner can be a sex partner – a fuck buddy you see upon occasion for a booty call. Partner can be a play partner – someone your meet up with at kinky events for flogging, spanking, or fire lighting practice.
Partner can be someone you’re seeing or dating…or someone with who you co-habit, or someone with whom you’ve spent the last 30 years of your life loving. Partner can sure be a lot of things and that can get confusing, but really, is there better language out there? I don’t think so.
When I call my partner “my partner,” I never know if people know what I mean. Given that my femme invisibility causes me to be read a straight woman fairly often, people sometimes think
I’m referring to my partner in a business sense. Others get confused about the commitment level of our relationship – because we refuse to use terms like finance or girlfriend, because are constantly asking me if the queer celebration of love is still happening, etc, because CLEARLY, if we really were “engaged,” then we’d be using more “serious” terms.
On the other hand, I use the term partner for almost all of my friends’ relationships…whether or not they are legally married. This has caused its own issues, because me using my gender neutral term partner in order to work towards language equality has some of my friends feeling as though I am devaluing their relationships by not using the terms husband and wife.
Is there an answer? I have no bloody clue. I haven’t been able to think of one. And in the long run, does it truly matter if people thing my partner, with whom I share residence, kitties and my emotional and financial burdens, is “just” a business partner? Another question to which I have no answers.