Why do straights use the word "partner"?
September 22, 2008 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I want to know more about the use of the word "partner," especially for straight couples...

...because we really just want to know if you're gay!

I was at a meeting of my (social work) school's gender and sexuality group, and a guy mentioned talking to a woman who mentioned her partner. Then she referred to said partner as "he," making it obvious that they were a straight couple. Usually, when someone talks about a partner, that's because that partner is the same gender. We talked about it for a minute, guessing that the woman just wanted to be sensitive after the (gay) guy talked about his partner. But I'm not satiated!

I realized I've heard this before. Do people do this for political correctness? What about the fact that the word "partner" exists because of the lack of legal recognition (save for CA and MA, fingers crossed for the prop in CA) of marriage? Isn't it a little bit awkward for straights? Is he/she your boyfriend or your husband? Sure, that's a privileged distinction, but still one that is accurate.

We queers want to know if you're on our team, and that's not helping! Can you explain?
posted by iliketolaughalot to Writing & Language (68 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've always assumed that it was for couples who were not married or engaged but felt they were too old for boyfriend/girlfriend. Sort of like when my grandma talks about my great uncle's "... er... 'ladyfriend'".
posted by rossination at 8:40 PM on September 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

The heterosexual couples that I know who do this do it because they're not married - so no husband/wife language works - but they are far, far beyond the boyfriend/girlfriend stage of things. I dunno - what other word do you think they should use?

queers are on the cutting edge of a lot of cultural stuff; why should language be different?
posted by rtha at 8:41 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

it's basically the same reason that gay people use it. i know a (straight) couple who've been together for 14 years now, and not gotten married for whatever reason. some people are in relationships that are comparable to marriage in terms of length or commitment, despite never having tied the knot. boyfriend/girlfriend makes their relationship sound less serious than it actually is. partner is awkward, but for the lack of a better word...
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:44 PM on September 22, 2008

I had presumed these would be just the same reasons a gay couple would. Because they find the terms boyfriend/girlfriend a little childish, and are not married (or engaged).
posted by pompomtom at 8:46 PM on September 22, 2008

Seconding rtha: Lots of people use this language that I know of because "Boyfriend/Girlfriend" sounds adolescent to some ears. Longer term, non married, couples are the sort of poeple I associate with it. Not any statement of sexuality, just a proper descriptive term.

What about the fact that the word "partner" exists because of the lack of legal recognition

This is not a 'fact'. Perhaps this explains your confusion? It's just 'how you use it in your context'.
posted by Brockles at 8:47 PM on September 22, 2008

I think some people, especially once they've reached middle age and have been with a person for a very long length of time, but have not married for whatever reason, feel little silly calling someone their boyfriend or girlfriend because it sort of connotes less of a commitment and makes it sound a little juvenile. Don't get me wrong I don't necessarily think this is true, but I can get how some people wouldn't want to call their partner of 20 years their boyfriend, like a high schooler would call whoever they have been dating for 2 weeks.
posted by whoaali at 8:47 PM on September 22, 2008

I lived in Quebec where partner always meant gay, but having moved to Alberta, which is much less PC (politically correct)) and much more PC (progressive conservative) than QC, everyone says partner, even when refering to straight relations. And I'm not talkin' "howdy pardner" either.
posted by furtive at 8:47 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Was the woman in the original situation from a different part of the world and/or country? People use different terms for different things, obviously, but I was under the impression "partner" was used to mean "spouse" in the UK, for example.
posted by purpletangerine at 8:51 PM on September 22, 2008

I say it because we are partners, like partners in crime.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 8:53 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, what everyone else said. Think about the other not-married options. "spouse", "significant other"... etc. They all scream "not wife/husband", leading to the twin conclusions not married but also possibly not straight.

In my own experience, I find partner just a tad too sharp in this direction, so I use "spouse". I claim spousal benefits from my workplace, after all. But I bet to (some) others, it carries the same question. Ontario here, FWIW.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:54 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm straight and I do this. My GF and I are both divorced, and don't want anything much more to do with legalities. But we're in our late 40's and have been together 13-some-odd years. So we use "partner" for a lack of anything better -- we do, I guess, want to distinguish it from the shorter-term relationships people in their teens have.

It's not about trying to encroach. If you have a better suggestion, I'm open to it.
posted by tyllwin at 8:55 PM on September 22, 2008

I had a rhetoric professor who purposely used the word partner to describe her husband. She did so because she felt that using husband/wife terminology came with connotations of inequality, in that "wife" connotes an inferior role in the relationship and that "husband" connotes the superior. She wanted to emphasize the fact that they were equals in the relationship, and she actually explained this all to us on the first day of lecture. Admittedly, I was confused at first as to whether she was describing a gay or straight relationship, but it all became clear eventually.

This was in Michigan, fwiw.
posted by andeles at 8:57 PM on September 22, 2008

I've known at least one university professor who was legally married to her husband, but still referred to him as her partner. It always struck me as a kind of PC/feminist/queer friendly affectation (since he is, legally speaking, her spouse). Annoying, really, but harmless.

For those of you not legally married, it is not annoying, but perfectly sensible.
posted by junkbox at 8:57 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

For all the reasons above. And because "lover" is just gross.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:58 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the stuff said above also there is the fact that in some states in the U.S. there is also the dp (domestic partners) this is for people who don't want the whole marriage thing but want the protections that marriage gives and that is open to both straight and gay and domestic partner is a lot to say so they might just say partner.
posted by CollegeNelson at 8:59 PM on September 22, 2008

I use "boyfriend" mostly, but there are times because of our age (late 30s/mid-40s) and in certain contexts that it seems a little casual or lightweight, so "partner" conveys more clearly that we are indeed domestic partners -- we're committed, live together, have shared financial interests (health care, retirement), etc.
posted by scody at 8:59 PM on September 22, 2008

Is he/she your boyfriend or your husband?

"Boyfriend" sounds like you are 16 years old and need to be home by curfew; "husband" only applies if you are legally married and even then carries baggage that "partner" doesn't.

So yeah, people use "partner" for all kinds of reasons — precision or ambiguity; privacy or openness; sometimes it implies solidarity with marriage-deprived-gays and sometimes it doesn't. It's not a phrase that applies only to gay people, any more than does the euphemism "roommate" for "live in lover."
posted by Forktine at 9:00 PM on September 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've always assumed that it was for couples who were not married or engaged but felt they were too old for boyfriend/girlfriend.

My girlfriend introduces me as her partner, and this is most of the reason why. She also has a master's in women's studies, and partner is sort of a gender-neutral term to describe any kind of long-term romantic relationship; she just feels uncomfortable calling me a boyfriend. And yes, some people just assume homosexuality when they hear that, but we're quite enlightened and don't think of homosexuality as having any sort of negative connotation.
posted by LionIndex at 9:00 PM on September 22, 2008

"Partner" is the norm in the UK for cohabiting adults in an opposite-sex romantic/intimate relationship. And when I say "the norm" I mean I see it in every newspaper and magazine of every political stripe.

What would you recommend that an adult call the other adult with whom they share a home, a bed, a life, and perhaps children?
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:02 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hear (and myself occasionally use) "partner" used to refer to someone's significant other *that they also live with*. Basically, a couple that is practically married, but not legally so.
posted by fructose at 9:04 PM on September 22, 2008

Of course, one sometimes has to differentiate between "business partner" and "life partner" in a conversation: Ricky Gervais's partner is Jane Fallon. And it's Stephen Merchant. The former is his life partner; the latter is his writing partner.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:05 PM on September 22, 2008

Even for heterosexual couples, it can get a little weird finding an adequate term to describe your relationship with, especially if you're not married and don't plan on getting married in the short term, but still want something that indicates a more long-term/committed relationship than "boyfriend" or "girlfriend."

It's funny, because this is something that's come up a few times recently in conversation with other (mostly hetero) couples. I think a lot of people aren't satisfied with boy/girlfriend, but at the same time can't go for "fiance(e)" because that indicates engagement, and plans to get married, and a whole lot of other baggage (e.g. "when's the wedding?"). There's a shortage of well-understood words to communicate a committed relationship that doesn't include marriage.

In a lot of ways "partner" is a really good word, and sums up the situation well, but I think it runs into the issue that inspired your question -- it's typically associated with gay relationships almost exclusively. But because of the lack of alternatives ("ess-ohh" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue) it doesn't surprise me if some hetero people were using it, especially in a context where being mistaken for being gay wouldn't be terribly awkward.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:05 PM on September 22, 2008

Oh, and in many areas, and with many national (in the US) companies, those who have cohabitated for a certain amount of time qualify for domestic partnership benefits (health insurance, etc.), regardless of sexuality.
posted by fructose at 9:05 PM on September 22, 2008

I am a bi woman who has been in a committed relationship with a man for over 7 years. I am most comfortable with the term partner and it's what I've used for most of our relationship. I do this for several reasons. First, basically what everyone has said so far. Boyfriend is way too adolescent and doesn't convey the kind of commitment we have to each other. (We're expecting our first baby in a month!) I don't like husband either because we won't be having a wedding ceremony since we're not religious and I feel strongly that I do not want to participate in an institution constructed on such patriarchal economic terms. So husband is out. I prefer partner because for me it conveys more accurately what we are to each other. And, in my mind, saying 'partner' to people who haven't heard heteros use it is a teeny tiny form of activism. I think it's great to let someone guess whether I'm straight or not, or none of the above!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 9:07 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've done this for a long time for two reasons:
1. the aforementioned "we've been together for years, so bf/gf sounds weirdly trivial"

2. I like having 'partner' be a word that doesn't tell the listener whether you're queer or straight. We need a word like that. If folks want to send a clear signal on the sex of their partner they can always say gf/bf. But there are situations where it's useful (for queers and straights) to be able to send a signal with less information.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:08 PM on September 22, 2008 [8 favorites]

When we used the term, my wife and I had been together, but unmarried, for more than a few years. The only reason we weren't married was that we weren't sure if the institution was right for us. We knew that we wanted to be together forever, but of course there's a ton of sociopolitical baggage that comes with the institution of marriage. Instead of just getting hitched, we lived together for about four years, referring to each other as "partner" rather than "husband/wife".

For a lot of people, I'm sure this simply serves to designate a relationship more serious than boyfriend/girlfriend. Speaking for myself, though, another reason I used it was that it allowed for a queering of people's perceptions of me. There were very often moments where, after saying that "my partner and I just moved in down the street," the person with whom I was speaking became very quiet and anxiously pensive, obviously trying to find a subtle way to ask whether my partner was a man or a woman. More liberal people would just ask whether my partner was a man or woman directly, but a lot of people would beat around the bush awkwardly like we were in an "It's Pat" sketch.

Based on those reactions, my guess would be that if you encounter someone using the term, he or she is generally going to have a progressive attitude about homosexuality. I would imagine most conservatives don't want people to mistake them for gay even for a second, and those associations with the word "partner" are still strong in most places.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:10 PM on September 22, 2008

I also think that there's variation among subcultures in terms of how normal a word this is for straight couples. Among younger academics, I would say it's the norm for everyone in talking about their longer-term relationships, even when those are marriages.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:11 PM on September 22, 2008

Partner implies equality and mutuality, going through life together by each others' side. Life partners. Partners in parenting, partners in crime.

We always used it even after we got legally married. I couldn't imagine using anything else.

It's quite common in my social circles, though - the accepted terminology, even.
posted by streetdreams at 9:12 PM on September 22, 2008

There is another context to this question that may seem surprising now, but even just a decade ago when I used to talk with my (many) non-hetero friends about this kind of thing, a clear majority of people used to reject the idea that marriage was something to aspire to out of hand. Marriage implied (to them, and to me and my non-narrow-minded straight friends) a very specific set of cultural and historical baggage of which they wanted no part. Civil unions (essentially equivalent to marriage in any case) were, to many, vastly preferable to marriage per se with all of its cultural implications.

"Partner" at that time was extremely common among couples that I knew whether straight or gay. It was a conscious symbol (with definite pro-feminist but also pro-queer overtones) of one's rejection of marriage-as-inherently-paternalistic-construct, which many queers rejected but that many straightfolk rejected equally strongly.

BTW I still know of queers who are uncomfortable that it has ended up being "marriage" instead of some alternative arrangement that has won the day.
posted by mikel at 9:14 PM on September 22, 2008

My partner and I choose not to get married until all of our friends can get married. The most many of them can do is "partner," so that's the most we do. Yes, when people learn that my partner and I are hetero, they almost always ask why we use "partner." We give an explanation not too much longer than my first sentence. (Although often they're interested in talking about it more. We, of course, are happy to oblige.) If we are going to advocate for full rights for all citizens, it's not enough to just have beliefs. Beliefs need to become action. By us using "partner," we're able to talk about it in almost every type of situation without being confrontational.
posted by ochenk at 9:15 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's definitely the norm in US academic communications to write "Spouses and partners are invited" or similar to mean "don't bring a casual date, but bring whoever you live with."

I take it for granted in other contexts, too, but I suppose I have more gay and/or English friends than most straight people in the US?
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:15 PM on September 22, 2008

What LobsterMitten and voltairemodern said. (And, for demographic purposes, I'm a young academic studying language and gender/sexuality.)
posted by pluckemin at 9:25 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm a man who refers to his wife as 'partner' or 'spouse' in certain situations. Those situations are generally the situations in which I wish to a) make a bigot uncomfortable or b) tweak someone in HR. Oddly, while we were engaged, we actually *were* domestic partners for insurance purposes. I have no idea if this cheapened domestic partnership for gay couples, though.

To be less flip, I do it to normalize *all* relationships and do my part to de-privilege heterosexuality.
posted by stet at 9:29 PM on September 22, 2008

Because as a 40 y/o woman, referring to the 38 y/o man in my life as "boyfriend" sounds... just... stupid.
posted by _Mona_ at 9:36 PM on September 22, 2008

I lived in Quebec where partner always meant gay

That's certainly not the case in Montreal! Also, seconding the observation that "partner" for straight couples seems to be more common for straight couples in academic and activist circles.

(And it's a usual term in polyamory, but that's probably not what the asker meant by "straight" regardless of which bits go into which other bits.)
posted by mendel at 9:37 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm a woman, and I refer to the man that I live with as my partner because we are unmarried but in a committed relationship. By committed, I mean that we live together and have a long-term plan for our lives together.

"Boyfriend" doesn't seem sufficient to describe what he means to me. I've had boyfriends before, and he's different than that. More than that.

I spent a fair amount of time abroad and it is incredibly common (especially in middle-aged Aussie/Kiwi hetero couples) to refer to your partner as your partner. I liked that a lot. I don't really want to be his wife, though I would like to marry him, and I think even after we're married, I'll still call him my partner.
posted by arnicae at 9:39 PM on September 22, 2008

Oh, and we're both in our 20s, by the way.

One last side-note: I had some friends from NZ visit last month and they nearly died laughing when they heard me refer to my guy as my partner. To them, only older couples refer to their spouses/whatevers as "partners".
posted by arnicae at 9:41 PM on September 22, 2008

Bah. How did I answer that and not make it clear that we're also straight? Me man. She woman.

That being said, I find "partner" a little too touchy-feely euphemistic, and I agree with whomever above said that "lover" was gross. Spouse kinda sucks too, actually. I may go back to sig other. Course we also have that scourge they call common-law marriage here, so we're hitched whether we like it or not.

Again I say bah.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:43 PM on September 22, 2008

I use the term partner because I abhor the term "hubby"
posted by TorontoSandy at 9:44 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Because, like others have already said - as a woman over 40, I'd feel ridiculous referring to my "boyfriend" or being referred to as someone's "girlfriend." Both terms make me cringe.

Besides, I like to keep people guessing :)
posted by chez shoes at 9:46 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm a bisexual woman, legally married to another woman, and I use partner instead of wife because wife carries with it the implication of husband. I prefer gender-neutral terms for everything that can be gender-neutral without being unnecessarily awkward. I love it when straight couples use the word partner because they are implicitly telling me that the gender of their spouse is not related to the subject at hand, which tells me that they're not gonna get all worked up about the gender of my spouse either.

In Canada, gay marriage has been legal for five years now, and I hear partner more lately, not less. I think it is a great trend and it makes me happy whenever I hear straight people use it - it makes me feel included, like they realize I am just like them and that the genders of our respective significant others - meaning, our sexualities - do not have to separate us.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:47 PM on September 22, 2008 [8 favorites]

Because I don't want you to know if I'm married or not ;-)
posted by singingfish at 9:50 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Like streetdreams, we use "partner". It's nobody's business in casual conversation but ours whether or not we are married. It's exactly the same reason why she uses Ms as a formal salutation.
posted by Neiltupper at 9:54 PM on September 22, 2008

I've always thought partner was awkward but is used because the alternative of boy/girl-friend is awkward as well. Lover just seems hedonistic. I like partner, yet it does have connotations of being overly PC and a little twee. English is a little funny like this.
posted by oxford blue at 10:03 PM on September 22, 2008

Also, the popularity of the term may have something to do with its use when you are asking a question of someone who you know has some sort of significant other, but may not know whether that person is male or female, or if they are married, engaged, common law, or whatever. You can't go wrong with 'partner'.
posted by ssg at 10:28 PM on September 22, 2008

He's my boyfriend when we do cute things for one another, my lover when we're alone, my darling in fondness, my best friend on adventures and, always, my partner.

If there may be confusion, I often add his name immediately afterward: "My partner, Antonio Banderas." (names have been changed to protect... oh hell, that was just fun to type.)

We may be an opposite-sex couple, but we're not straight, at least insofar as I'm not and there's lots of other little varied unstraightnesses to us, of which we are proud. "Partner" hints at this to both the people who are "in" and "out" of our social milieu. It's pretty important for people to glean that about us at some point in our relationship with them. "Partner" is a beginning to that dialogue.

We share more than many married couples do - money, plans, jeez, we usually share orders at restaurants - partner is thoroughly accurate and not even adequate.

We disapprove of government's sanction of a religious institution. So I can't imagine ever wanting to call him my husband or being called a wife, even when prop 8 fails and the soundbite version of our wedding politics, "no marriage till gay marriage," is rendered obsolete. I've said it before: if it's not a religious institution, it wouldn't have to be strictly hetero. But the titles "husband" and "wife" are at the core of my lingering unease about marriage's legitimation of binary gender roles. I would rather have access to a new form of sanctioned partnership, Civil Unions, etc., but those are not available to opposite-sex couples of our age in California.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:06 PM on September 22, 2008 [7 favorites]

I do it LOTS. At first I wanted to use "partner" because I didn't want to use the term "girlfriend". That could mean anything from "second date" to "fiance". I'd always get "oh, so how long have you been dating?".

After a while, I preferred using the term "partner" because it was vague and let me keep my personal life, personal. I wouldn't really use the term "partner" when talking to friends, or family, but when at work, "partner". The less they know about me, the better.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:12 PM on September 22, 2008

One last side-note: I had some friends from NZ visit last month and they nearly died laughing when they heard me refer to my guy as my partner. To them, only older couples refer to their spouses/whatevers as "partners".

I agree with this if your friend is a child or thinks "older" is anyone over about 25.
posted by The Monkey at 11:59 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm married and my wife and I refer to each other usually as "partner" to people.

I'm not trying to be twee or PC or whatever, I just thought it was along the lines of always saying Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. -- a way to purposely introduce a small bit of confusion to dispel prejudices. Why should I have to tell a stranger right off the bat that I'm a straight married guy and bring with it all the baggage that might come along with that (in various contexts, it could be seen as a bad thing -- like if you were interviewing for a job at a startup or something where single people in their 20s are more the norm).
posted by mathowie at 12:06 AM on September 23, 2008

I've used partner for going on 20 years now. Boyfriend & de facto were ick, really, and I didn't think husband was much better - it carried so much baggage. My partner has been my business partner as well, and I liked the ambiguity of that term. I guess, a bit like Stet, I too do it to normalize *all* relationships and do my part to de-privilege heterosexuality and traditional standard marriages. I use Ms and don't wear a wedding ring, and occasionally go bald, so yeah, some people are confused but it's none of their business really.
posted by b33j at 12:55 AM on September 23, 2008

I'm queer and I use "partner" for my opposite-gendered partner.... so, I guess by "queer," you meant "homosexual" but we bisexuals are part of team queer as well!

I don't intend on marrying 'moonMan, and I will use "boyfriend" if that's the term someone else brings up, but I really prefer "partner" because hey! We live together, we've made a lifelong commitment to each other, we're planning on having children - we just don't want to get married! So, "partner" is a much better term.

Also, I'm a fan of gender-neutral terms.

Also also, most of the time when I've needed to know if someone bats for Team Q is for dating purposes, and if someone mentions their "partner," well, they're already out of the dating pool, so the gender of said partner is pretty much irrelevant.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:39 AM on September 23, 2008

I've used partner because we have decided to be a monagamous couple for life but havent bothered to get legally married yet. Boyfriend sounds silly to me - I had a "boyfriend" in the first grade - this is different. We slip sometimes a say husband or wife- but just because thats how it feels.
posted by beccaj at 3:46 AM on September 23, 2008

I'm straight and I use "partner" for the reasons mentioned above.
posted by Meagan at 3:49 AM on September 23, 2008

As another data point, 1) it does sound a bit more mature than "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" (my girlfriend refers to me as her partner, and I refer to her as my girlfriend, which tells you about our maturity levels... I'm probably lagging here). Also, in the academic environment I'm involved in, 2) gender neutrality.
posted by synecdoche at 4:46 AM on September 23, 2008

And of course, not everyone in a heterosexual relationship is, or identifies as heterosexual.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:19 AM on September 23, 2008

I'm not old enough to have a lot of married friends, but amongst lefty academics/college kids in Kentucky and on the east coast (DC/NY) I've heard this a lot. I see it as just being PC, and a deliberate dodging of marital status issues.

My school, the University of Kentucky, recently had an epic debate about offering benifits for "domestic partners".
posted by phrontist at 7:13 AM on September 23, 2008

All of the above. Although I rarely use the term myself, since I'm an old fogey and "partner" sounds to me like a business agreement rather than a domestic/romantic commitment.

English just doesn't have good gender-neutral none-of-your-damn-business terms for many of these personal situations. Before I got married 15 years ago, I don't think "partner" was as commonly used; my tongue-in-cheek term of choice was "sweetie". Said with a direct look in the eye and a slightly belligerent "You got a problem with my terminology, chief?" attitude. I still like it for situations where nobody needs to know my marital status - "partner" sounds a little too self-righteously PC for tweaking conservatives.
posted by Quietgal at 7:59 AM on September 23, 2008

use "seri-oso" like someone-who-is-serious, in place of "partner" for hetero couples
posted by phritosan at 8:11 AM on September 23, 2008

I interpret it as solidarity with the gay rights movement.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:18 AM on September 23, 2008

put me on the list of bi, over-forty women in a lifelong commitment with someone who happens to be a man. we are everything *but* married--co-owning a home, fully melded finances, and a long view to old age. i prefer a term that is both ambiguous and true. we do not believe in legal or religious marriage, and i may someday have a second partner--or maybe just a girlfriend.

my partner favors the term "Domestic Associate." because he's that way. :)
posted by RedEmma at 9:01 AM on September 23, 2008

Gay married man here. My spouse is my partner. I enjoy the confusion, and I have fun seeing how long I can go without clarifying genders. I don't especially like the word "spouse", never did (just a silly thing, sounds too mousy). But I have tons of fun with the confusion, being 16 years older than my partner. People often assume I'm his father, and sometimes I don't correct them (once, this happened where the person knew my 'son' was Belgian, and myself American, and asked how that could be). My boy (LOL) is the bread winner and the pretty one. I'm the domestic help, yet keep things intellectually challenging.

The old word "lover" always struck me as carrying baggage of a temporary nature. I date back to a time and place where having a live-in gay partner was the height of daring. I don't mind the word 'husband', but it seems silly since we're both 'husbands'.

I do occasionally choose the word 'spouse', when I explicitly wish to convey the legal side of the relationship. I long for the day when we might be kissing each other in public, and have someone say something. I will turn to them and say, "It's okay, we're married!".
posted by Goofyy at 9:56 AM on September 23, 2008

My partner and I fully intend to continue using that term even when (if) married even though we are "heterosexual" in that we are a male/female couple. Any other term is so loaded with expectation and assumption that its not worth using because it doesn't really apply to us.
posted by zennoshinjou at 10:47 AM on September 23, 2008

I never heard 'partner' being used as a hetero term til I moved out to Portland. Philly just isn't all that PC I guess, at least not the crowds I hung out with when I lived there.

I've always just used boyfriend, though perhaps at 33 I should stop that. Maybe I'll start introducing my fella as my old man.
posted by medeine at 10:58 AM on September 23, 2008

she referred to said partner as "he," making it obvious that they were a straight couple

IMO, face value doesn't work anymore where gender is concerned. I've learned the awkward way that it isn't an assumable thing that the term "he" used to describe one member of a couple automatically designates the individual as:

b)male by birth

In some butch/femme relationships the butch self-describes as "hei" "hir", etc., various spellings to for the person to really really pointedly tell you hie might be offended if you look for tits then assign entire personhood to them (i.e., flipping the historical context and politics of gender and sexuality on their butts, taking back power over self, etc.). Additionally, there exist transgendered people who prefer to use the identifiers usually assigned to the other-gendered.

Right on, Ambrosia Voyeur. That is an utterly romantic love letter. Sigh.
posted by mcbeth at 11:06 AM on September 23, 2008

What voltairemodern, LobsterMitten, stet, etc, said. (For the record, I'm a young married hetero academic.) Also, this

my partner and I just moved in down the street," the person with whom I was speaking became very quiet and anxiously pensive, obviously trying to find a subtle way to ask whether my partner was a man or a woman.

helps me unobtrusively gather information about my interlocutor's attitudes. This info comes in handy for future interactions with this person.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:47 PM on September 23, 2008

As a gay woman, I find the use of "partner" by straight people to be accepting, kind, and effective in promoting social justice. My opinion of straight people skyrockets when they use the term. Because of my appearance, people often assume I am straight until I talk about my partner. I use the term out of necessity, but for straight people it is an act of courage and defiance of cultural norms.
posted by tr0ubley at 10:10 PM on September 23, 2008

I find the use of "partner" by straight people to be accepting, kind, and effective in promoting social justice....for straight people it is an act of courage and defiance of cultural norms.

Do you still feel that, being as you seem to be by far in the minority by assuming it has any reference to gay relationships or marriage at all? The vast majority of people answering here suggests it is a perfectly usual word to describe a heterosexual relationship and clearly that doesn't also hold implicit approval or solidarity with gay rights or 'defying cultural norms'. It is the cultural norm for certainly everywhere I have lived for calling someone 'your partner' having zero significance for sexual preference.

It seems that the gay community attaches far more to the use of this word (from your reply and the OP's 'It's OUR word, why are YOU using it') than is warranted. An odd phenomenon, and personally I am astonished that people consider perfectly accurate usage of a common word as somehow a statement or significant to them. I'm interested if this significance is weakened by learning that it's only gay people that think it 'says something' to use that word.
posted by Brockles at 5:10 AM on September 24, 2008

The vast majority of people answering here suggests it is a perfectly usual word to describe a heterosexual relationship and clearly that doesn't also hold implicit approval or solidarity with gay rights . . .

Yes but there are two categories to this majority - those who are not married and prefer the word to girl/boyfriend (or some other term) and those who are married but who consider that one's marital status and/or sexual preference is not significant (or anyone's business) except in context. In that way, there is an implicit approval or solidarity with gay rights.
posted by Neiltupper at 9:10 PM on September 24, 2008

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