Who Gets to Use the Term 'Partner'?
Some queer people feel it should belong to the LGBTQ community, but others feel the non-gendered term should be normalized for everyone.
Photo by VegterFoto, via Stocksy.
Describing the romantic relationship I’m in, which is replete with nebulous and ever-evolving gender feels, it can be tough to identify with any of the words available in the English language when it comes to what to call my loved one.
Standing at 6’3”, I’m as lithe as I am clockable—a fuzzy femme who goes by the neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” I tower above my 5’4” trans-masculine partner. We have on-and-off-again relationships with hormone treatments and body hair removal, but when it comes to one another, we’ve been on-and-on since our first date several years ago. In 2016, we were married by the state. We each donned custom-made gowns and touted wildflower bouquets as we sashayed down a makeshift trail-cum-aisle in front of family—chosen and biological—exchanging simple gold bands speckled with black diamonds. When we refer to each other, “husband” and “wife” playfully pop in from time to time. Primarily, though, (and to the confusion of our parents) we use the more neutral term “partner.”
We prefer “partner” because it’s not gendered. As folks who live our everyday lives on the in-between and upside-down of the gender spectrum (think of us as trans-Demogorgons), “partner” is something of an outlier in an arsenal of otherwise incredibly binary means of describing togetherness. In fact, it’s the only word equipped to convey the seriousness of our bond without ascribing either of us a fixed gender. Though we’re married, the term also dispels some of the ownership associated with the institution of marriage, calling for a more active relationship and equal dynamic. We’re not simply partners in love and sex ’til death do us part, but we’re partners in crime; partners in life; partners in charades (for better or worse). I can count on him to feed the dachshunds when I stay late at the office; he can count on me to take them out in the morning as he’s just waking up.
Using the term “partner” can feel complicated despite—or perhaps because of—its neutrality with regard to gender and marital status. Until June 26, 2015, the state institution of marriage was not accessible across all 50 states to couples legally bearing the same gender markers. Partly because of that, “partner,” like “domestic partners,” has long been a way for LGBTQ couples to describe their significant others when “husband” or “wife” wasn’t technically accurate and “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” with their associations of playfulness, youth, and brevity, felt too trivial. (A newer term, “theyfriend,” has recently emerged to bridge the gender gap, but it still lacks a tone of serious commitment.)
The use of “partner” is indebted to those earlier generations of queers affected by marriage inequality. Today, though, it’s widely used by progressive, cisgender, straight folks and LGBTQ people alike. Although it’s just a word, it’s become the subject of an ongoing cultural debate: Who should get to use “partner”? Specifically, should straight people be saying it, or does it belong to queers?
“‘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.
Others, like Broadly contributor Sadie Graham, have expressed that use of the term by cis, straight people can feel like an (inappropriate) attempt to pass as queer, or at least align onself with queer culture instead of heterosexual privelege. She writes that when used by straight people, the word seems to be meant to say, “‘We’re straight but not like that; too serious, too aware, or too intellectual for the juvenile boyfriend/girlfriend terminology.’”
For some cis, straight people, though, “partner” functions as a more personal political statement. “I find myself recoiling from the word ‘boyfriend’ in my own relationship because it communicates a power structure built around cis-masculine identity that I somehow belong to or am dependent upon for my own presumed identity as ‘girlfriend,’” says Kelsey Gray, a fiction writer from Portland. Gray adds, however, that she’d prefer if there were another word that reclaimed the “feminine quality” in straight relationships outside of the word “partner,” due to its roots in the queer community.
The debate, like most others about potential cultural appropriation, is fraught. Perhaps a more illuminating inquiry is the question of why we say “partner.” What, besides its history, makes this word something to fight over?
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.”
Other queers find validation and safety in the term’s ambiguity. Kim* from Toronto uses it to refer to her partner, a trans woman who hasn’t come out to all of her friends and family. “She is out to some and not others,” Kim explains. “The word ‘partner’ is easy to use and I don’t have to reveal her gender right away.”
For others like me, “partner” fills in where terms like “husband” and “wife” feel lacking, adding connotations of commitment and mutuality. Take Adria Garcia, the queer owner of Seattle-based vintage boutique Indian Summer, who has been married to a cisgender man for 16 years. “I hate the word ‘husband,’” she says. “After all these years of having each other’s back, emotionally and spiritually caring for each other, working through trauma and unpacking, cooking thousands of meals and paying bills, raising our child and ourselves, he is my partner through life. The word is just fitting.” For folks like Adria who, to the outside world, may appear to be in straight relationships, gendered terms like “husband” and “wife” can also feel as though they obscure one’s queer identity.
Though you should be able to identify however you damn please and be respected for however you choose to describe your relationship, it’s true that the word “partner” was brought into its current understanding through a history of use—often out of a necessity not felt by cis, straight people—within the queer community. If they want to say “partner,” 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? Perhaps you’re non-binary and “husband” or “wife” doesn’t account for your gender; maybe you’re queer and you want to align yourself with your transcestors; or, possibly, “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” just doesn’t broach the seriousness of your commitment.
I, personally, find so much value in the word “partner.” Because of its neutrality, it demands a certain self-definition that, in my own relationship, has helped my partner and me assess and reassess our mutual commitment.
*Last name has been omitted for privacy.