LIVING OUT: What's in a Name?
"Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" I'd love to mimic the old stand up comics with, "That was no lady, that was my wife." Instead, my answer depends entirely on who's asking.
To the close friends who witnessed our wedding ceremony she really is my wife or, for a laugh, the little lady. Unfortunately our marriage is still not legally recognized by any state in the union (but keep rooting for Hawaii and Vermont.) I can't lawfully tell you she's my wife if you're taking a census, filing a police report or issuing a family membership in AAA. For strictly official purposes she's my domestic partner. But domestic partner makes it sound like we cook, decorate and clean house much more than we ever do -- except when relatives come to visit.
According to the IRS I don't have a wife at all. I'm relegated to checking the single box -- other than that I don't lie on my taxes, honest.
She's my spouse on insurance forms, credit applications and anything else asking who to notify in case of an emergency. I usually answer spouse for medical charts, too, but I never know how coming out will be received. I once tested this, answering the birth control question on a doctor's intake form by drawing two interlocking Venus symbols. The nurse cluelessly commented that it was "very scientific."
In lesbian circles girlfriend designates a serious relationship. "Are they girlfriends or just dating?" Of course outside lesbian circles women are girlfriends too. "Bye bye, honey," they say benignly to their husbands, "I'm going out to lunch with a girlfriend." It's always possible they actually want to get involved with each other, but in that case they'd become lovers or secret sweethearts or something more thrilling than girlfriends.
In private I'm comfortable with girlfriend, as in "Good morning, girlfriend" or even more sweetly, "How ya doin', girlfie?" But what's cute and intimate at home can sound undignified and silly out in the world. "Yes, your honor, I can verify that at the time of the murder I was at home with my girlfie."
Just plain partner suffices in a lot of situations. It's usually understood that we're not law partners or business partners, or wild west pard'ners (I like to think that worked for Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane.) Doesn't partners sounds decidedly asexual? Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were partners and everybody knows there was no hanky panky between them. Besides, we're much more loving than that. But if I were to introduce her as my lover, hanky panky is about all you'd have on your mind for the rest of the conversation.
Sadly, nobody's come up with a simple word yet suitable for public consumption that expresses the nature of our connection. I sure could have used one when we were returning from a family bat mitzvah recently. At least the ticket agent made it easy, "And how many do we have traveling together today?" It was pleasantly effortless to simply say "two" and not have to explain, which we appreciated at five in the morning, when nobody is in any mood to be a walking thesaurus.
After a long flight we landed with only a few minutes to deplane and make our connecting flight home. We pried ourselves out of the seats and stood like zombies in a stale-air stupor waiting for the flight attendant to open the door. Terra firma finally in sight, we began the narrow-aisle shuffle toward the exit, to the flight attendant's chant, "Goodbye, bye now, bye bye, goodbye, bye now." Then suddenly she shoved her assertive uniformed arm right in front of me, "We need to let the passengers from the front of the cabin exit." I watched the back of my wife and her rolling carry-on bag slip through the exit and begin to disappear down the ramp. Panic. We might lose each other in the airport and miss the flight home. What magic open sesame would get me off the plane that instant? Lover or roommate or girlfriend would all be too weak, deuces outranked by the aces of the first class passengers. Damn, I knew that if I had been a man I could blurt authoritatively "That's my wife!" and they'd let me through. "That's my, uh, partner," I stammered inadequately and scrambled past just in time.
I felt weird about it. I don't like that couples have privileges denied singles but I really hate it that same-sex relationships, no matter how loyal or long lasting, are considered inferior to "real" marriages. Someday we'll have simple accurate words that affirm our equality.
Until then, as the comics would say, take my domestic partner, please.