Our Partners, Ourselves: Why Is It So Hard To Know What To Call A Significant Other?

Photographed by Savana Ogburn.
Because of a congenital heart defect, I have an annual checkup with a cardiologist. This yearly visit to the hospital — involving numerous tests, conversations about future surgeries, and a waiting room filled with babies who have only just embarked on the same lifelong journey of doctors' appointments and arrhythmias that I've been on for almost 30 years — is always an existential trip. But perhaps one of the most daunting parts of the day is when the triage nurse asks for my emergency contact info. I give the name, phone number, and address without hesitation, but when she asks: "Relationship to patient?" I stumble. Technically speaking, the answer to this question is: "He's my boyfriend" — but this particular title just doesn't quite fit. 
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Answering with "boyfriend," I have the overwhelming impulse to add more context. I hope the nurse will notice that my emergency contact hasn't changed from the one I gave last year and that our addresses are the same, but either she doesn't notice or, more likely,  she just doesn't care. That doesn't stop me from awkwardly joking, "Don’t worry, this isn't just some guy I met on Tinder or picked up at a bar last weekend," as she silently connects me to the EKG, having already moved on. For some reason, I need her to know that we live together, we've been in each other's lives in one form or another for almost 10 years, and we've raised two beautiful cats together. "Boyfriend" just doesn't get that message across.
"There is a practical history of people needing a word to label a serious relationship that doesn't involve marriage," says Lal Zimman, Associate Professor of Linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara. This, of course, is the exact situation I'm in. The term "boyfriend" doesn't conjure up associations with commitment. A boyfriend is someone you only see on weekends or someone who could easily ghost you at any time because your lives aren't necessarily so intertwined. Despite wanting to make the seriousness of my relationship known, however, I almost never find myself thinking about marriage. It might be something we eventually decide to do, but it's not a priority, and he's definitely not my fiance. So what is he? 
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For many people in my position — I'm a cis woman in a long-term relationship with a man — the word "partner" has become the default term — more and more, using the word "partner" even continues after marriage. The implications are clear: A partner will likely stick around. A partner knows and even loves your family and will absolutely answer the phone when the hospital taps them as your emergency contact — a partner is your family. A simple fix, right? Perhaps, but, of course, "partner" doesn't come without its own complicated history and associations and echoes of appropriation. And maybe that's why I still have a hard time saying it.
As the term partner has become more and more widely used, it's important to note why it not only feels like a progressive term, but also what it took to make it become a common one. Zimman points out that "partner" deemphasizes the terminology most associated with heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles within relationships. Still, that progressive connotation is exactly what makes me self-conscious about using it as the label for one of the most significant relationships in my life. For a long time, I heard the word partner mostly used by queer couples, either because same-sex marriage was not yet legal or because gendered terms like "husband," "wife," "boyfriend," and "girlfriend" simply didn’t fit. It was hard not to wonder if I would be appropriating the term if I started using it. 
Interestingly, "partner" was defined as a term exclusively used for heterosexual couples for a long time before being widely adopted for queer relationships. According to Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's Editor at Large, the word partner originally meant one who shares a parcel of land — that being the measure of wealth in medieval England, a type of currency that often came into play with marriages, which were thought of as economic, rather than romantic, relationships. This origin as an even division of wealth, and therefore power, speaks to its use in many romantic contexts even today though. "Merriam-Webster did not define a same-sex version of the word partner until 1993," says Sokolowski. "Prior to that, it was simply a cross-reference to 'husband, wife.' So partner, if it was a romantic partner, was exclusively heterosexual." It wasn't until the dictionary's 10th Collegiate Edition was released in 1993 that "husband, wife" was replaced in the definition with the word "spouse." According to Sokolowski, the definition for partner then became "either of two people living together; especially spouse."
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Sokolowski also shared that the first use of the word partner recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary was taken from the private correspondence of a single family in the 16th century; each member of a married couple referred to one another as "partner." John Milton also used the word in Paradise Lost in the late 17th century to reference a heterosexual spouse. The first example of partner being used to talk about queer relationships noted in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a publication called Gay News in 1977. "This is interesting because it was in 1978 that Berkeley passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Ordinance whereby the city promised to provide equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation," Sokolowski explains. "So basically, around the late '70s, this idea of domestic partnerships came about, therefore connecting this word partner to a spouse-like relationship that was not yet legal in a marriage context, but was being made legal in a civil context." 
Clearly, there is an extensive history of queer couples being excluded from the definition of the word partner because the existence of queerness and queer relationships was for so long wholly ignored. In the period from the late '70s through the '90s, though, things began to change. In a 1992 essay from Law & Sexuality, David L. Chambers explores the impact that the AIDS epidemic had on the fight for the legal recognition of domestic partnerships, specifically in San Francisco and New York. "AIDS had brought home the price that gay men and lesbians had been paying for the social and legal nonrecognition of their relations," Chambers writes. "That price revealed itself when the biological families of gay men with AIDS tried to exclude their sons' partners from hospital visitation or from participating in decisions about medical treatment. Conflicts continued after death, with struggles over burial and property."
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The urgency of having a relationship be recognized in the eyes of the law was also highlighted when many gay men with AIDS lost their health insurance because they had become too ill to work and could not obtain insurance coverage through their partners. In New York, many gay men who had cared for their sick partners found that they were not legally eligible to remain in their partners' rent-stabilized apartment after their partners' deaths. According to Chambers, in addition to emphasizing the need for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the AIDS epidemic also brought into focus the significance of these partnerships for many gay men and lesbians. In his piece, Chambers quotes Jean Harris, a lesbian activist and chief of staff to Harry Britt, the openly gay member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors who first introduced domestic partner legislation in S.F., "AIDS made us realize that our lovers are our support systems. It made us more aware of the importance of primary relationships. It made love and relationships even more important than they had seemed before."
This all speaks to the power of this word partner, as queer people were literally trying to save their lives by showing society-at-large that their commitments to one another mattered as much as those of heterosexual couples. Eventually, partner became more universally accepted as the term used by and for those in queer relationships, but that long and tragic fight for acknowledgment and acceptance is a big part of why I feel like I'm co-opting the word when I use it to describe my own heterosexual relationship. And yet, perhaps my discomfort is just a sign that the evolution of the word "partner" is still ongoing, and that there's still a lot of work to be done with regards to the terminology surrounding our relationships.
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Sokolowski points to the way that the definition of the word "marriage" has changed in recent years as an example of how language surrounding relationships is still in flux. "Merriam-Webster's definition of marriage is a great microcosm of how this works because initially we separated gay marriage from traditional marriage in our definition as a. and b. for the simple reason that whenever gay marriage was used in The New York Times or something, it was made extremely clear that this was gay marriage," he explains. "It was always used with the term 'gay' in front of it, which means that they weren't exactly equivalent, and that gay marriage was clearly regarded as a special case or special kind of marriage. So we separated them as a. and b., two different senses, and then later collapsed them into one, using the word spouse as we do for partner, because now the evidence shows that gay marriage is no longer a special case. It's simply marriage." 
Sokolowski highlights the three stages of this evolution: First, gay marriage was not recognized; then, it became isolated as a special case, an asterisk on marriage; and finally, it was integrated into the traditional definition. "The same discomfort that the culture might have felt with the idea of same-sex marriage is sort of echoed in the discomfort we have in the use of new terminology," he shares. "The British linguist, David Crystal says, 'frequency breeds content,' so the more often you hear it, the more comfortable you are."
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Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage in 2015, gay marriage has become less othered, and queer couples have embraced terms like husband, wife, and spouse with pride. Many have even left behind the term partner. However, depending on where you are, the association between the word partner and queerness still lingers. 
Sarah S., who lives in D.C. with her partner, tells me, "I'm bi and in a hetero relationship. I intentionally use partner not only to normalize it for queer couples, but also because it does sound inherently queer right now, so it kind of affirms my queer identity to myself — especially as a woman who realized they were bi while in a relationship with a man." 
U.K.-based lifestyle blogger Luisa-Christie, who is also bisexual, feels similarly. "I think it's fab when heterosexual people say 'partner,' because it normalizes gender-free language and it means that those people who are queer but maybe not out yet, aren't outing themselves in potentially unsafe situations or in front of friends, family, or work colleagues they may not want to share it with." Amber Grace, 28, agrees. "For me, using the term partner is inclusive of the whole spectrum of sexuality and gender, which is really important as my life has taught me that who we are and who we love is not something set in stone."
On the other hand, Carla tells me that she resents this idea that genderless language and queerness need to be "normalized." She says, "As far as I am concerned, I am normal. I feel that no matter what I say or what other queer people say about this, straight people, at the end of the day, will do whatever they want." She also stresses that using certain words is not enough. "If straight people want to be allies, maybe do it in action. Do straight people stand up to any type of bullying? Are you providing a safe environment, everywhere you interact in your life, as a straight person? You don't need to adopt language to be 'inclusive.' Be inclusive with your actions not with your virtue signalling. Hire people, stand up, ACTUALLY DO! Especially, in a workplace, which from my own experience has always been nothing but violent. Hearing people say 'partner'? Meh! It doesn't help me in any way — never has in the past and it won't in the future, as long as we are being killed and experiencing harassment."
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Amber Grace acknowledges that this issue is complicated for some queer folks. "I have absolutely been privileged in my coming out, and have very rarely felt unsafe or unwelcome — at least in comparison to many others in the community," she explains. "So I do understand why some feel that the term 'partner,' which, at least in part, was really created so that non-hetero couples could safely refer to their 'more than friends' in less than safe spaces, should only be used by people who need that protection. I think if I saw someone who was the opposite of an ally to LGBTQ+ use the term 'partner,' I'd be irritated."
Australia-based designer Oliver Boston also emphasizes the importance of remembering why queer people often use the word. "I don't think it's up to anyone to tell a couple how they define their relationship," they say. "I just wish that heterosexual people stayed aware that one of the reasons LGBT people use the term partner instead of boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife is because it's still often unsafe for us to immediately disclose our sexuality. It is also a nod to the fact that until only recently it was illegal for us to marry or have our relationships recognized officially — and in many places, it's still illegal. I guess the way I feel about it boils down to: Straight people can call each other what they want but just remember that the history behind why we do it is different."
According to Zimman, the use of the word partner, regardless of gender or sexuality, is more common in certain places. "In the U.K. and Australia, 'partner' is used really widely as a label for straight couples," he says. "Even within the U.S., there's some variation. I had a conversation with a colleague not long ago who had lived on the East Coast, and he found that when he used 'partner' there, people immediately understood that he's gay, but in California, when he uses partner, people don't make that same assumption.” I know that, for me, because the word is so open to interpretation, I worry that some people might think I'm using "partner" not just because I want my progressive beliefs about relationships and identity to be known, but also because I want people to think I might also be queer. 
"In the past, same-sex couples would sometimes use a 'they' pronoun in reference to their partner to just avoid gendering them and avoid bringing their sexuality up. It seems like some straight people might be doing something similar, but reversed. They might use the word partner because they want to leave some mystery or openness about the gender of their partner," Zimman acknowledges. When I asked Zimman how he felt about this type of trickery, which is all too common among liberal, white, straight people, he said that, as a linguist, he is not inclined to make judgments about what is better or worse in terms of people's language use. He did offer this, though: "The word partner could potentially be taken as a way of hiding the person's actual sexual orientation, but of course, we do a lot of other things besides just using words to describe our relationships. So a conclusion on whether there's any kind of queer-baiting going on is really something that you get from the full context. There's a difference between a person who presents themselves consistently as 'maybe I'm queer and I kind of want people to think that about me, even though I'm not' versus a person who uses the word partner but also uses a pronoun to refer to their partner or has other things to say about who they are and how they identify. I think we don't have to put as much pressure on this word partner to be what really matters in terms of how we're presenting ourselves. Let's start thinking about it more holistically."
Zimman's point that one single label — whether it be partner or boyfriend or emergency-contact — doesn't have to do all heavy lifting when explaining who you are is an important one. It's a reminder that saying the word partner feels complicated because identities and the nature of our many relationships themselves are complicated — and our collective history of inequality toward and stigmatization of queer relationships only makes it more so. Acknowledging that may make it easier to approach language without so much judgment, and more like a linguist — or even a busy nurse who can't be bothered to reassure you that she understands that you're in a serious relationship.

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