Lately, something confusing has started to happen. I’ll find myself at a wedding or an academic conference or a dinner party and I’ll meet a heterosexual who invariably makes reference to his or her “partner,” a term once employed mainly by gays and lesbians to refer to same-sex significant others. Now, in what seems to be the spirit of political correctness, well-intentioned straight people have co-opted the term and made a mess of its former status as gay signifier. (A recent article on the “partner” free-for-all can be seen here.)
As a Jewish lesbian with a straight past and a feminine appearance, I find this especially aggravating. For me, the term “partner” was a way of casually outing myself to colleagues and new acquaintances. “My partner and I live in Cambridge,” or “My partner is at home grading papers tonight; she was sorry she couldn’t be here.” I relied on this single word to communicate the truth of my sexual and social identity as a gay woman, but lately it’s not doing the cultural work it used to do.
A few weeks ago, I was having drinks with a group of new-ish friends, and a stylish, thirty-something man was introduced to me. We began chatting, and he referred to his “partner,” at which point I continued my friendly exchange with him, assuming he was gay and therefore not only above suspicion as a source of unwelcome sexual advances, but an all-out brother-in-arms with whom I might share a sociopolitical history and, perhaps, even a network of friends, bars and jokes. Imagine my surprise when he explained that his partner loves “her” job as an art teacher! I reorganized my mental geography, re-positioned this new male acquaintance as a sensitive-new-man type and toned down my extroversion. After all, he probably didn’t know I was gay since I had relied on “partner” to do the job for me.
This is but one example of the kind of social chaos that ensues when people start using language promiscuously and depriving words of their intended function. I’ve noticed this to be the case quite frequently with straight women who seem to relish the kind of mystery they can create around their romantic status. It can often unfold as a kind of power-charged guessing-game.
Take this recent encounter, for instance:
Me: How long have you lived in the city?
Woman with Partner: Oh, we’ve been here for ages. My partner works at Columbia.
Me: Wow — that’s great. What does your partner do?
Me: Hmm. Is he or she happy at Columbia?
WWP: Yeah … He is.
After such a dialogue, there is a kind of satisfaction in excavating the strangely concealed pronoun, and yet it is coupled by the deflation of the heterosexual revelation. Was she simply trying to seem like an ally? Does she get off on maintaining an aura of sexual unknowability in spite of her wedding band?
I know she probably, but not necessarily, meant that although she is not married, she is more committed to her relationship than words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” would suggest. Still, this transition into a connotation of ambivalent heterosexuality has deprived “partner” of its useful queer subtext. And considering the political exclusions we suffer, shouldn’t we at least be granted sole rights to a term that indicates love without the benefit of the law?
I guess now I’ll just have to find another word. There’s always “wife.”