“Partner” is a term people use to refer to their significant others. It’s used by all sorts of couples, regardless of the gender identities of the people in the couple. As explained in a previous post, it’s a term that some people might use to replace “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” or they might use it instead of “husband” or “wife.” But among some LGBTQ+ people there is resentment at the idea of a cisgender woman referring to a cisgender man as her “partner,” particularly if they are straight.
Why would anyone resent the term that someone else uses?
For some, there is an idea that cisgender men and women in relationships with each other are appropriating a word they didn’t “need” in the way that other couples needed them. Corinne Werder explained in a piece for GO Magazine:
I’m really not sure why straight couples refer to each other as “partners”—you have boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, wife/husband, and fiancé. And you’ve had those terms forever. Are you trying to be gender ambiguous when you use “partner?” Are you using “partner” because you think it’s trendy? I just don’t understand. I hear straight married or engaged couples use “partner,” and I’m just like—why though? Queer people have had to use partner to refer to significant others because we couldn’t legally get married until [recently] in America. We didn’t have a way to refer to significant others who we lived with or were committed to since we couldn’t get married, and thus partner. So please, just stop.
Is this a popular opinion among LGBTQ+ people?
Like all issues of terminology, there is no one agreed-upon rule. But there are others who share Werder’s sentiments, as Coco Romack wrote in a story for Vice:
“‘Partner’ should be used only by the LGBTQ community,” says Sarah Courville, a queer student based in Berlin. She recalls a time when she was ridiculed at a bar for referring to her partner as such and feels that it’s inappropriate for straight people to start using a word that queer people have been penalized for using in the past. “[Straight people] have no right to co-opt the term or idea until meaningful social, political, and economic equality is truly reached,” she says.
How does one know if the person using “partner” is straight and cisgender?
That’s the thing: one doesn’t know. There could be a woman who calls her significant other “partner,” but there’s no guarantee that either of them are cisgender, straight, both, or neither. In the story Coco Romack wrote for Vice, one of the subjects explained the double-edged sword that comes with that ambiguity:
Gabe David, a butch tattoo artist from Halifax, Canada, says she uses “partner” as a means for flagging and identifying safety among other queers: “When I’m getting to know someone and they use the word ‘partner,’ I get a little excited and assume that there’s a possibility this person might be queer.” David notes that widespread use of the non-gendered term can be helpful because it conceals queerness, making marking yourself as queer more of a choice. “To me, ‘partner’ used to be a shield,” she says. “If I didn’t give the gender of my partner right away to those I felt unsafe around, I said ‘partner.’ Straight people using the term may have saved my life in the early days.”
So if straight people should not use “partner,” what should they use instead? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Husband? Wife? Spouse?
There is no agreement as to whether or not anyone should not use “partner,” nor is there agreement as to what term anyone should use instead. This is partially because “partner” has some freedom and versatility that other words don’t. Lindsay King-Miller explained in a piece for Role Reboot why “partner” has appeal over “wife”:
I cringe when anyone, no matter how well-meaning, refers to me as Charlie’s “wife.” I don’t identify with that word at all. It doesn’t sound like someone I want to be. It sounds like my identity has been subsumed by my relationship. When someone says “wife,” I picture a very specific kind of person. For me, the word conjures June-Cleaver-esque middle-class white femininity, a certain kind of aesthetically pleasing docility and domesticity. For you, it might be something somewhat different, but I’d be willing to bet there’s an image in your head of who a wife is, what she wears, how she interacts with her spouse. Same goes for “husband.” Partner, though—it’s wide open. Who can be a partner? Anyone who is working with someone else. To what end? It’s up to the individuals in question. Partner means charting your own course.
So, in this case, “partner” is used because the term is free of the connotations and baggage that comes with “wife” or “husband.” Or to frame it in context of some of the other quotes: there might be people who have always “gotten” to use “husband” or “wife” to refer to their cisgender partner, but they might not want it or what it implies.
So it sounds like anymore, it’s hard to know the gender identity and sexual orientation of a person using “partner”?
Of course, it’s best to never assume one’s orientation or gender identity. But you’re right, “partner” has become a normalized term. And for some, that’s the point. As King-Miller explained in the aforementioned piece for Role Reboot:
When I hear someone I don’t know refer to their “partner,” I no longer assume that means they’re in a same-sex couple. I don’t assume it means they’re unmarried. I don’t assume anything except that they are sharing their lives and creating relationship models that work for them.
OK, so the bottom line is that some people might be offended by straight, cisgender people using “partner,” and others will welcome that use?
That sounds about right. In the piece for Vice, Romack gave this advice: “People of relative privilege should take a moment to reflect on their word choice. It never hurts to check yourself by asking, Why am I choosing to identify this way?”
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