I don’t have a boyfriend

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.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in Language, Misconceptions, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to I don’t have a boyfriend

  1. ace-muslim says:

    If we think of asexuals as non-monosexual (since zero does not equal one) then “monosexism” would cover assumptions about both bi/pansexuals and asexuals. I think of the situation you described as either the heteronormative assumption or the monosexual assumption. It also erases bi/pansexuality and asexuality. So I guess all of the terms you mentioned are correct!

    • queenieofaces says:

      I forgot about “the heteronormative assumption”! That’s a good one. But that doesn’t cover folks who date someone of the same gender and then are forever labeled gay (even if they don’t identify that way). THAT would be covered by the monosexual assumption, but then you get into the complicated “are aces polysexual or what” argument (I drew a bunch of complicated figures to try to hash that out here: http://queenieofaces.tumblr.com/post/30546550626/aces-and-monosexuality). I guess I’ve just never seen monosexism explicitly applied to problems aces face (unless they’re bi/panromantic, which brings up a whole ‘nother barrel of issues concerning that intersection), although I have seen ace erasure compared to monosexism. So…I don’t know! Someone who’s better at theory than I am should hash this out.

  2. Eponine says:

    Interesting post. I’ve noticed a lot of people on AVEN tend to use “partner”. On another fairly mainstream relationship forum I used to visit, almost everyone used “boyfriend”, “girlfriend”, “husband”, “wife” or even “DH/DW”. I only remember one married woman insisting using “S.O.” because she didn’t like the connotation of “husband” and “wife”.

    I have a “romantic friend”, which would probably boggle people’s mind much more than “partner” or “S.O.”, lol. But I’ve pretty much only talked about my romantic friendship in online ace communities, so it’s not a big problem yet.

  3. queenieofaces says:

    Huh, I’ve never heard “DH” or “DW” before! Learn something new every day, I guess. Of the ace couples I know, the ones that use “partner” rather than a gendered term tend to do so for gender reasons. Interestingly enough, I remember first hearing the word “partner” used by a straight cis woman who was dating a straight cis man; they wanted to use gender-neutral terms because they felt that “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” came with a lot of baggage and expectations.

    I feel like “romantic friend” isn’t that different than “sex friend” (in terms of strangeness of the term, not the content of the relationship, obviously), and I know several people who have sex friends. But then again, I’m pretty cool with whatever words people want to use for their relationships! So I’m not the best judge most likely, haha.

    • Eponine says:

      I’ve also heard people say they prefer “partner” over “boy/girlfriend” because “bf/gf” sounds juvenile and not serious enough. But I feel the opposite: A “boyfriend” is someone you expect to be a husband, or at least a live-in partner. That’s why I don’t call my romantic friend “boyfriend”. But I don’t mind calling him a S.O., because S.O. doesn’t carry that baggage. Interesting how different people interpret these words differently. 🙂

      • queenieofaces says:

        Yeah, I definitely feel like boyfriend/girlfriend is more relationship-escalator-ish, and implies a definite direction to the relationship. On the other hand, I have met people who thought that “partner” was SUPER SERIOUS–more so than husband/wife! So it really depends on the person, I guess.

        Also, true story, I used to always misread bf and gf as “best friend” and “gif” respectively. I was really confused for a while…

  4. Norah says:

    Partner is the usual term here that I hear by adults who are in a relationship but not married, sometimes even if they are married. I’ve heard my mom call my dad both by ‘partner’ and by (the equivalent of) ‘husband’ (to a third party, just to clarify). So I guess it would be traditional relationship language here. Which suits me just fine, it very nicely doesn’t imply nearly as much as a lot of other words.

  5. ace-muslim says:

    From what I understand, in the UK, it’s more common for different-sex couples to use “partner” to refer to each other, so part of the problem may be specific to U.S. culture.

  6. Sara K. says:

    My own parents, who are cis and straight, refer to each other as ‘partners’, and ‘domestic partners’ when they feel a more specific term is needed (on the 2010 Census form, they relationship is classified as ‘unmarried partner’).

    Then again, my parents don’t really care if others think they are not-straight – after all, my father did hang out with gay guys in college … in the 1960s (i.e. before Stonewall). If anything, I think they’d rather be considered a little ‘gay’ than being a Relationship Escalator Classic (TM) Couple.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Do you know if your parents have ever had problems with people refusing to call them partners?

      • Sara K. says:

        I don’t know of anyone specifically refusing to call my parents partners (the problem you describe in this post), but many people assume that they are married, and get baffled when it is pointed out that they are not married and, nope, they’re not divorced either.

        I’ve actually been thinking about this, particularly the way my father has described his previous intimate relationships. I can only think of one person who he has ever referred to as his (ex) girlfriend, who is also the only person he has ever considered marrying (as far as I know, he’s never considered marrying my mother). According to him, the main reasons they did not marry were a) money (i.e. he didn’t have enough) b) he said that he was too immature at the time (he was in his early 20s). He describes the other people he has had close, intimate relationships with as his ‘woman-friends’, with whom he had a different kind of relationship with than his friends who happen to be female. ‘Woman-friend’ is obviously just as gendered as ‘girlfriend’, but it at least indicates that he was taking the stairs, not the escalator, with them.

  7. epochryphal says:

    *nod nod* I guess I mentally associate alternative relationship names with trans*, ace, and poly(amorous) reasons, being all of those…’cause yeah, they are often gendering, and heteronormative, and associated with monogamy (which is still hard to break up assumptions of, even with alternative words) and romance and sex and all these things.

    I had a “sock drawer” for awhile, like intimate-but-not-underwear-just-socks-intimate, and having to explain it every time I said it meant heading off a lot of assumptions but was also, y’know, kinda tiring, and not foolproof either. Mostly it meant folks avoided describing our relationship (kind of like avoiding pronouns instead of using the non-standard ones provided, imo). That worked for a time, and then less-so, because yeah, how important does it get considered. I can definitely see how using a not-unique-but-not-common relationship descriptor can get overridden by not ‘standing out’ enough that people are careful to use it/not use other terms.

  8. Siggy says:

    I always use boyfriend specifically because it gives away the gender of my partner. It’s all about immediately defeating the heterosexual assumption.

    • queenieofaces says:

      It seems like most of my gay friends who are in romantic relationships use “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” On the other hand, I know several folks who are bisexual who use “partner” instead, regardless of the gender of the person they’re dating. One of my bi friends (who has only ever dated girls) said that she prefers “partner” because it implies that someone of a different gender could take the same role in her life, which I thought was a really interesting reason to use the word. Hmm, now I feel like someone should do a survey…

  9. Pingback: “But I’m not gay”: being visibly queer and invisibly asexual | The Asexual Agenda

  10. Pingback: “But I’m not gay:” Being visibly queer and invisibly asexual | LGBTeen

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