It happened again a couple of weeks ago, one of those conversations where you’re just talking past each other.
Classmate: Is your boyfriend coming to visit you for the weekend?
Queenie: No, I’m going down to visit my partner.
Classmate: Do you have any plans with your boyfriend over spring break?
Queenie: No, my partner is heading home for break.
This classmate is one who insists on referring to my partner as my boyfriend–despite the fact that I’ve told her that both my partner and I prefer “partner” over “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”* By this point, I’ve basically given up on getting her to call him my partner–I just try not to wince every time she starts talking about him.
Perhaps I am overly conscious of the words other people use for their relationships. When I was a child, adults around me had husbands and wives and spouses and significant others and boyfriends and girlfriends and partners, and woe to anyone who confused one for the other. Heck, I have an “aunt” who I am not related to by either blood or marriage. Relationships are difficult to tell from a glance, and so I figure it’s better to wait for someone to clarify what words they use than to stumble blindly. That’s not to say that I don’t mess up sometimes–I definitely mess up sometimes. But the idea of knowing what words the parties involved use and refusing to use them kind of boggles my mind. Okay, yes, I can see how it would be a little bit awkward to refer to “Regina’s sparkle pants sexy times friend” in certain contexts, but “Queenie’s partner” is fairly innocuous.
The fact of the matter is, people (well, people outside of queer and/or ace spaces) seem to have trouble calling my partner my partner. One of my classmates refers to him as my “significant other,” which is close enough, I suppose. Another one calls him my “boyfriend” and then corrects herself (usually after I’ve corrected her first). A few refuse to call him anything but my boyfriend, even after I explain to them that he’s not my boyfriend. During my last physical, my physician cycled through “your man,” “your guy,” “your person,” “this person,” “your boy-man,” and “that guy” before realizing that I was consistently calling him my partner. One classmate told me she’s just going to call him my boyfriend because “calling him your partner makes you sound like a lesbian.”
When did “partner” start to mean “same-sex romantic-sexual partner”? My (female) professor has a partner who uses he/him pronouns, so I’m pretty sure the answer is “never.”** And for those who don’t like the “ambiguity” inherent in calling him my partner–“It’s just so hard to tell what kind of partners you are. Are you business partners? Lab partners? Romantic partners?”–have you ever stopped to think that maybe the ambiguity is precisely why I like the term? (That and the ability to say that we are romantic partners…in crime!) Maybe I don’t want people to assume anything about our relationship, and so I use words that make assuming things difficult. Maybe I just like the word “partner.” Does it matter why I use the words I use? Do I have to justify my word choices to every person who asks? Do I have to provide proof that he should be called my partner instead of my boyfriend?
I guess what it comes down to is that some people find the idea of our not fitting into a traditional relationship mold unsettling, so they try to make us fit by using traditional relationship language. It goes along with the rash of protestations that we’re “basically straight”–we’re just, you know, straight people who aren’t sexually attracted to anyone and aren’t actually heteroromantic. (Yes, that sounds terribly straight to me.) In some ways it reminds me a bit of bisexual (and pansexual) erasure–if you’re dating someone of a different gender, you are clearly a straight person, regardless of your attractions or identities.*** And while I can understand seeing us walking together and mistaking us for a straight couple, I cannot understand knowing that neither of us identifies as straight and yet insisting that we must be (we just don’t know that yet).
Maybe I just need this shirt. Maybe I need to stamp “I DON’T HAVE A BOYFRIEND” across my forehead. Maybe I need to develop the ability to shoot lasers out of my eyes every time someone insists they know more about my relationships than I do. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme (you have to admit, though, eye lasers would be pretty cool), but I think people have the right to decide how their relationships are defined and what they’re called. If you have a girlfriend, cool. If you have a boyfriend, good for you. If you have a partner, join the club (we have cookies****). If you have a sparkle pants sexy times friend, nice. If you say you have a significant other, beau, sweetie, QPP, buddy, BFF, or fandom friend 5EVER, who am I to tell you you’re wrong? I’m not the relationship police. Is it too much to ask for the same courtesy in return?
*There are honestly quite a few reasons I’m not okay with calling him my boyfriend, perhaps the biggest of which is that it implies something both about his gender and about our relationship that neither of us is particularly comfortable with.
**For more on the history of the word “partner” and the variety of ways it is used, check out this post!
***Interestingly enough, I talked a little bit about people insisting that my partner and I are “basically straight” when I was paneling at the Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference, and afterward a pansexual woman came up and thanked me for bringing that issue up, since she and her partner have the same problem! There must be a better/more specific term for this phenomenon of assuming that who you are dating at the time defines your entire identity other than “bisexual erasure” or “monosexism”–anyone know one? My partner thought “heteronormativity” might cover it, but that seems too general.
****Some restrictions apply; product may vary by location.