Originally published April 2, 2009.
The word “partner” means a number of things: “a person who takes part with another or others in doing something,” “a dancing companion,” “a person who is party to something,” and “each of a group of two or more symbiotically associated organisms,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A partner is also “a person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover.”
This particular definition represents the conflict of opinions surrounding the usage of the word “partner” in the context of an emotional relationship. The general consensus seems to agree that referring to someone as your partner denotes a lengthy, serious relationship with that person.
That relationship, however, can be as friends, as a dating couple, or as spouses…and these are only a few examples.
Introducing someone as your partner inspires a variety of responses. I typically get a confused look from the person I’m talking to, reflecting the internal debate over whether I’m straight.
For this reason, many straight people opt out of using “partner” to describe their own relationships. It represents the whole “Hey, it’s cool if you’re gay, but I don’t want people to think I’m gay” facet of homophobia.
The problem is that “partner” exists in a kind of linguistic limbo. People across the spectrum of sexuality feel that it denotes too serious a connection with someone to be used casually. It also comes with a lot of unwanted attention.
Because of the connotation that the speaker is in a committed, same-gender relationship, some LGBT individuals avoid it altogether.
Its usage suggests that the length or seriousness of one’s relationship is up for public discussion.
For some straight people, however, calling your significant other your “partner” demonstrates a willingness to open yourself up to this kind of discussion. I wouldn’t refer to the person I’ve been seeing for two and a half years as my “boyfriend,” and I’m fully prepared to explain in conversation with others why I call him my partner.
To me, talking about my choice of language forces me into a (only minimally) similar experience to what LGBT-identified people face when talking about their romantic relationships with others—the judgment of listeners.
Despite the readiness of some straight-identified people to give up some of their privilege as “the norm” by employing the term “partner,” the word itself took on its current meaning in an effort to provide LGBT people a means of talking about their relationships.
Because of this, some argue, “partner” inherently implies the existing legal and cultural inequality between different-gender and same-gender relationships.
Using it means many can forgo explicitly “outing” themselves in certain situations, but it also highlights the fact that for most LGBT relationships, titles like “wife,” “husband,” and “spouse” are legally unavailable though conversationally used.
Does this mean that it’s counter-productive for a straight-identified person to have a “partner” rather than a “boyfriend”? No, but it does point to a few other things. The first is that a single word doesn’t have the power to erase inequality. The second, though, is that the movement to make all these terms interchangeable does.
If straight people made a mass decision that as of tomorrow, everyone would say “partner” instead of anything else, it wouldn’t erase the belief that same-gender relationships are somehow inferior.
But if LGBTpeople claim heteronormative, gendered terms as their own and straight allies try to understand LGBT perspectives by making their sexuality ambiguous using terms like “partner,” a whole lot of confusion is bound to ensue.
That confusion results in explanation, which fosters discussion about relationships and relationship rights. And that’s where cultural change—the key to legal change, civil rights, and equality—begins.
Chelsea is a senior in English and creative writing and has mostly figured out how to wrap her sari … mostly.