Yesterday evening I attended a panel discussion at the Ford School of Public Policy here at the University of Michigan regarding the Defense of Marriage Act. The panelists gave an excellent discussion about DOMA, how it impacts people directly (immigration, child custody, financial security), and what might happen either if the Court strikes down the law, or where our movement would go if we lost our DOMA cases. During the discussion, the panelists were asked whether our community should fight for civil unions vs. marriage, and whether the focus on the word “marriage” is hurting same-sex couples who need the legal rights and benefits that civil unions would provide. In answering, the panelists emphasized the social differences between calling someone your “husband” as opposed to calling them your “partner”. For example, one of the panelists is entering into a civil union in Illinois, and when she and her fiancée were sending out the invitations for the ceremony, they did not know what to call the relationship. Do they say they are entering into a civil union? A marriage? Is she becoming a partner? A wife?
I have also been on the receiving end of this linguistic controversy. As one who has been legally married to my husband Nathan for almost three years come this January, I have come across many individuals, some of them part of the LGBT community, who refer to my husband as my “partner”. Sometimes it is unintentional and when I correct their usage of the word, they apologize and refer Nathan as my husband for the rest of the conversation. Yet other times, even when I make this correction, they push back and assert that because I am not legally recognized as married where I am, Nathan is my “partner”, not my husband.
Though individuals in any sort of relationship are free to call the relationship that they are in whatever they want (whether that be partner, spouse, husband, boyfriend, etc.), the automatic usage of words like “partner” show a deeper divide within our community. It seems as though we have become so caught up on the legal status of marriage that we forget that marriage is also a social institution, sanctioned by our religion, family, and friends. It seems as though, in our fight for equal marriage rights, we have twisted the meaning of marriage only into a legal issue. Does our community consider a couple “married” only if they have all the legal rights afforded through marriage and are called “married” by the State?
In our legal arguments, we assert that the term “partner” is inferior to the word “husband” or the word “wife”. We claim that civil unions and the like are separate by equal, that it sends a message to society that our relationships are inferior when we have civil unions rather than actual legally recognized marriage. Only through having access to full “marriage” will we be considered as equal to our heterosexual neighbors. This argument underscores the social nature of the institution of marriage. It is not just a legal issue, the Government can give same-sex couples all of the legal rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples have, but because our society attaches a significant cultural value to the term “marriage” and the words that go along with that term, denying our community access to that term treats our relationships as less than.
Given the significant meaning that society attaches to words such as marriage, husband, wife, and spouse, have we not ourselves created a social “second class status” by referring to our marriages and relationships as “partnerships”? Though we may like to think that our relationships only affect those who are in them, the outside world looks at how we view our relationships and how we refer to each other. Given that many within our community use the word “partner”, could society not say that we have accepted that our relationships are “second-class” because we do not use the cultural terminology of marriage when we refer to our spouses?
I recognize that many will take issue with my assertion that by calling our relationships “partnerships” that we are asserting that our relationships are inferior. I realize that many will say that we should be able to call our relationships whatever we want and that by using husband and wife that we are caving to a dominate heterosexual culture. Though I find that argument possible and having legitimacy, I personally do not find it persuasive. Though we may wish that we could call our relationships whatever we want, reality says that we live in a society where words have connotations that are attached to them. Maybe that is not the idea, but that is the cards that we have been dealt.
I would be interested in hearing my readers’ thoughts on this issue. What do you refer to your significant other as and why?