December 12, 2018

Who Gets to Use the Word “Partner?”

“Describing the romantic relationship I’m in, which is replete with nebulous and ever-evolving gender feels, it can be tough to identify with any of the words available in the English language when it comes to what to call my loved one.

Standing at 6’3”, I’m as lithe as I am clockable—a fuzzy femme who goes by the neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” I tower above my 5’4” trans-masculine partner. We have on-and-off-again relationships with hormone treatments and body hair removal, but when it comes to one another, we’ve been on-and-on since our first date several years ago. In 2016, we were married by the state. We each donned custom-made gowns and touted wildflower bouquets as we sashayed down a makeshift trail-cum-aisle in front of family—chosen and biological—exchanging simple gold bands speckled with black diamonds. When we refer to each other, “husband” and “wife” playfully pop in from time to time. Primarily, though, (and to the confusion of our parents) we use the more neutral term “partner.”

We prefer “partner” because it’s not gendered. As folks who live our everyday lives on the in-between and upside-down of the gender spectrum (think of us as trans-Demogorgons), “partner” is something of an outlier in an arsenal of otherwise incredibly binary means of describing togetherness. In fact, it’s the only word equipped to convey the seriousness of our bond without ascribing either of us a fixed gender. Though we’re married, the term also dispels some of the ownership associated with the institution of marriage, calling for a more active relationship and equal dynamic. We’re not simply partners in love and sex ’til death do us part, but we’re partners in crime; partners in life; partners in charades (for better or worse). I can count on him to feed the dachshunds when I stay late at the office; he can count on me to take them out in the morning as he’s just waking up.

Using the term “partner” can feel complicated despite—or perhaps because of—its neutrality with regard to gender and marital status. Until June 26, 2015, the state institution of marriage was not accessible across all 50 states to couples legally bearing the same gender markers. Partly because of that, “partner,” like “domestic partners,” has long been a way for LGBTQ couples to describe their significant others when “husband” or “wife” wasn’t technically accurate and “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” with their associations of playfulness, youth, and brevity, felt too trivial. (A newer term, “theyfriend,” has recently emerged to bridge the gender gap, but it still lacks a tone of serious commitment.)”

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