As marriage-equality litigation makes its way through the courts in the Keystone State, for LGBT couples who want to marry, I can forewarn you to get ready to think about language yet again. My partner and I had been together for 17 years when New York, where we live, passed its Marriage Equality Act. Over the years, we had both grown very comfortable with the term “partner.” To us, “boyfriend” suggested a youthfulness that didn’t quite square with our status as middle-aged men. “Lover” brought to mind a mirrored disco ball from the 1970s, which made me feel older than I am. Occasionally, “partner” carried the sense of “business partner,” but most people — LGBT and straight — understood it as “life partner.” Our families used the term. Our friends and colleagues used the term.
Then we got married and the linguistic ground shifted beneath our feet. My partner immediately began calling me his husband. David grew up in Chicago and is pretty fearless about these things. For me, I grew up in the more rural precincts of Maine and tend to be more cautious and circumspect. (Either way, we now could get married in our home states, too, if we wanted.) Once we got married, my first thought was, If I call David my husband, does that mean that I consider myself his wife?
There is the term “spouse.” Since getting married to David, I’ve already used “spouse” when filing income taxes and filling out paperwork in a doctor’s office. “Spouse” works well in official or semi-official settings. Thanks to the women’s movement, “spouse” already conveys the sense of equality between the married partners regardless of their gender. I can get behind “spouse” in certain contexts.
When David and I talked about using “husband,” I wasn’t entirely surprised that he hadn’t even considered that, when calling me his husband, it might implicate him as my wife. Nor was he entirely surprised that this was my first thought. But we decided that use of the terms “husband” and “wife” by same-sex couples can expand the definition of those terms in good ways. Why can’t there be two wives in a relationship? Or two husbands?
Opponents of same-sex marriage often argue that it’s a re-definition of marriage. I disagree with that. I think marriage is still a close personal bond between two consenting adults who make a commitment to one another before the law. (If you also make that commitment before God, that’s between you and God.) But when it comes to the use of the terms “husband” and “wife,” marriage equality expands the definition of those terms for the better. When same-sex couples use the terms “husband” or “wife,” it reinforces ever more strongly and cogently the notion of fundamental equality between both partners. And more equality in society rather than less is something that has to be good for everyone — LGBT and straight — in the Keystone State and more and more throughout many other states in America.
Scott Bane is a freelance writer in New York City at work on a book about the relationship between Harvard scholar F.O. Matthiessen and painter Russell Cheney.