The Name Game
By: Shannon Ralph
I am married to a woman. Though Ruanita and I are not legally married, I consider myself married in every other sense of the word. We share a home, a mortgage, a bank account, car payments, life insurance, three boisterous children, a cantankerous cat, and a sock drawer. There is no doubt in my mind —or in the minds of our family and friends— that we are a married couple on par with all other married couples. We face the same challenges and joys as every other married couple in this country. We struggle with budgeting for our household, raising our children, managing the in-laws, and somehow making time for our relationship amidst the craziness of married life. We share housework and yardwork and homework chores. We argue over Ruanita not filling up ice cube trays. We bicker over me not changing the cat litter. We scratch our heads in amazement at the enormous piles of dirty laundry five people can create. We plan for our future and celebrate our past. But our marriage is not legal. I do not have a wife. What, then, do I have? What exactly are Ruanita and I to one another?
“Husband” and “wife” are terms that are universally understood. When you introduce someone as your husband or wife, that relationship comes with a certain level of respect, regardless of where you are in the world. In the United States, there are 1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status is a determining factor in assigning benefits, rights, and privileges. Respect for marriage is fundamentally built into our law and our society—as well as all other societies across the globe. In essence, we all understand what the terms “husband” and “wife” mean. Unfortunately for gay people, however, in today’s culture the term “husband” assumes the existence of a wife. And the term “wife” assumes the existence of a husband.
So then, if Ruanita is not my wife because we are not married, what is she? Therein lies my dilemma. We are not legally married, so in reality, she is not my wife. There is no term in the American vernacular to adequately describe the relationship between two people who love one another and are committed to one another for life, but are barred from marrying by our antiquated and unjust legal system. So, as gays and lesbians, we are left struggling to describe our relationships with terms that are inadequate, incomplete, or blatantly inaccurate.
So what are some of these terms? What can I call Ruanita? My uncle Joey, a gay man of a certain generation, introduced Ruanita several years ago to a group of his friends as my lover. As I stood in front of that bunch of flamboyant middle-aged gay men gathered around a patio table, my face turned red, my skin crawled, and I instantly felt a bit dirty. I don’t consider myself a prude, but I certainly don’t want people referring to Ruanita as my lover. The term implies a relationship more casual and clandestine than a marriage. Plus, it has a sexual connotation that I really don’t feel comfortable putting out there for the world to see. Yes, Ruanita is my lover, but we will keep that to ourselves, thank you very much.
What about girlfriend? No, Ruanita is most certainly not my girlfriend. I think the three rambunctious children living in our house and the mortgage that totally wipes out our checking account each month put us a little past the “girlfriend” stage. Our days of making mix tapes for one another are long gone.
How about significant other? This is sweet, I suppose, but doesn’t imply the same level of commitment assumed in a husband or wife. Mate? Makes me think of Gilligan. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip… Hmm, no. What about companion? Has a bit of a geriatric ring to it, doesn’t it? Sounds like someone with whom you could get a wild game of bridge or canasta going.
One lesbian couple I know refer to one another as “wifebian,” a term I find incredibly inventive, but not a term I could ever imagine myself calling Ruanita. I suspect she would immediately stop in her tracks and flash me one of her infamous “what the fuck!?” looks if I ever referred to her as my wifebian.
What about spouse? Yes, that could work, but the assumption when a woman talks about her spouse is that she has a husband. The term is too vague for my tastes. It feels to me like a convenient way to conceal the fact that I am married to a woman. I am proud to be married to Ruanita and I want a term that instantly tells people that I am with a woman. I am in a loving, committed, lesbian relationship. Spouse just doesn’t cut it.
Life Partner? Domestic partner? I hate “life partner”. It sounds so contrived. A dog could be my life partner. My children are my life partners, as I will have a relationship with them for life. My mom is my life partner. If ever there were anyone who has been around my entire life, it is my mother. And “domestic partner” is even worse. The term makes me think of domestic help. Ruanita is certainly not my housekeeper, though she probably feels like it most days.
Many of my lesbian friends do call their partners “wife”, despite not being legally married. I have no problem with this. I understand the desire to use the term because our relationships should be equal to —and as important as— straight marriages. However, personally, I don’t feel comfortable with the term. When I am allowed to marry Ruanita, I will happily refer to her as my wife. In the meantime, however, I feel that using the term negates the fact that we are not allowed to marry. By referring to her as my wife, I feel that this would somehow give off the impression that I am comfortable with our current status. I fear that straight people, including our legislators, could misconstrue the use of this term to assume that I feel I am on adequate legal footing —that I don’t need additional rights and privileges. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ruanita is not my wife, though she absolutely should be. Calling her such does not change that fact. Pretending she is my wife belittles our situation in my eyes. I do not have the same legal rights as every other wife in this county. This is an injustice that cannot be mended simply by referring to Ruanita as my wife. Laws must change and equality for all must become a priority in this country.
As it stands, I refer to Ruanita as my partner. I must admit that I hate the term. It is too staunch. Too formal. Too business-like. Unfortunately, it is the best I can come up with in our current tenuous legal state. Luscious and lusty lesbo lover, though is flows quite easily off the tongue, didn’t sit very well with Ruanita. And I had a difficult time saying it with a straight face. When the time comes that I am allowed to marry the woman I choose, terms will —thankfully— become a non-issue. Ruanita will be my wife, plain and simple. A female married person will be a wife and a male married person will be a husband —regardless of the gender of the person they choose to marry. I am confident this day will come in my lifetime. In the meantime, I will continue sharing a a home, a mortgage, a bank account, car payments, life insurance, three boisterous children, a cantankerous cat, and a sock drawer with Ruanita —my partner, for lack of a better term.