Naming Ourselves

We lived together for four years. Our commitment celebration was a marriage ceremony. We share our finances, our families are merging, we have some friends in common, we no longer distinguish betwee "her chair" and "my sofa" and I don't know what to call her. She is muy lover, best friend, life partner, confidant, spouse, buddy, housemate. She is my main squeeze. (I'm your only squeeze, she insists.) She is not my wife or my husband.

When I introduce her to people, I usually say she's my partner and let them figure out what kind of partner. Having had a couple of business partners, I know the difference, and expect others do too. I could say "life partner," but it sounds more like a prison sentence than a chosen commitment. When I say "partner" I try to drawl like a bad imitation of an old John Wayne movie. If I were to say "spouse," I'd have to be careful not to spit. It's not a user-friendly word, spouse. Long-time companion or loving companion is reserved for an obituary. I long for a word with the grace and flow of companera or novia, but they haven't found their way into English yet, and the translation of companion or sweetheart doesn't do either word justice.

Introducing my lover as my roommate or housemate or best friend maybe accurate, but it is a form of concealment. Those words don't include in thier definition that we are sexually linked. Partner is fuzzy that way. Sex isn't part of the definition, but partner has been used instead of spouse or lover or wife/husband for long enough now to nearly carry the connotation of sexuallity, Lover of course, carries the weight of sexuallity and can be awkward, since heterosexual society tends to assume that being lesbian or gay is only about sex.

I've heard one or two women introduce one another as wife. I can't get there. I know it was important to me to reclaim the word marriage--meaing a spiritual, social, and sexual bond--for the relationship I was forming with my lover. There is no other word in English that expresses the totality of that union, and so in spite of the fact that "marriage" is what heterosexuals do, I want to be able to do it too. I don't have, personally, the same feelings about the word wife, or even husband. A wife, historically, was a piece of property. A wife was owned by a husband, or a man, and I have a hard time finding anything abnout that concept that I want to reclaim. A wife does the cooking and cleaning and child care. The term is bound by historical social restrictions that limit it. I think if I referred to my partner as "my wife" in public two things would happen: she'd be furious and I couldn't say it without starting to giggle.

So what do we do? I've settled on lover or partner, depending on the circumstances, until the language produces something more lovely. I'n in fairly good company with this. A 1988 survey (Partners: Task Force for Gay & Lesbian Couples) found that 35 percent of the lesbians surveyed used the word partner and 30 percent used lover.

Does it mater? That's the other question I've heard raised over and over when issues about language are brought up. Trust me, it matters. Language shapes our thinking, and how we think about our relationships shapes what they become. If we expect them to be transient, not permanent, if we expect them to be a peripheral part of our lives, they will be that. Calling the woman with whom you share the most intimate and profound part of your life your roommate trivializes the relationship. My father knew that, even before I had a named myself a lesbian to him. My lover of several years went with me to my mother's funeral. My mother's sister, whom I hasn't seen in many years, was introduced to my loverand sommented, "Oh, you're the roommate," "Oh, no" my father insisted to my surprise. "She's much more than that. They own a house together." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He knew instinctively her importance to me, but he didn't have the words and I hadn't given him the permission.

A year later, when he was visiting us at Christmas, we were driving down the road to a neighbour's party, my lover and I bemaoning the event and the necessity. "Oh, cheer up," he told us. "Maybe you'll meet your future husbands there." My lover nearly drove the car into a ditch, and I decided I was going to have to say the word lesbian out loud out to my father. If I didnt say it, I could hardlu critize him for trivializing our relationship, although my impulse was to accuse him furiously of just that. "You'd never suggest my sister have an affair outside marriage," I wanted to say to him, "so how could you suggest I might want another relationship than this one?"

After that day, my father, and later his wife, spoke of my partner as my p[artner. She and her children became memebers of our family. Their support was part of a network of friends and family who recognized our relationship and helped us affirm its centrality to our lives. They could give us this support because they had the words to name our relationship and they had our permission to use them.

Source: "Lesbians Couples Guide"

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