Why do gay couples use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ rather than ‘partner’?

Steven Petrow
Columnist, Civilities May 13

Dear Civilities: My wife (female) and I are supporters of gay marriage, but we are puzzled about gay couples using the terms “wife” and “husband.” When same-sex couples marry, do they choose to be the “wife” as opposed to the “husband?”

I notice you use the term. Why not just use the term “partner” as do some heterosexuals? — Name withheld

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities. View Archive

A: Thanks for sending in this question because it’s one I’m asked fairly frequently, with a dollop of embarrassment because these monikers still aren’t that familiar. Let me attempt to clear up that confusion. Your question seems to assume that when a same-sex couple adopts “husband” and “wife” as their preferred term, they pick one apiece. That’s not the case. When two men have married, there are two husbands; for women, there are two wives. The bottom line: Don’t ask a same-sex couple who is the “husband” or the “wife.”

You’re right — I do call Jim my “husband” since we got hitched in August; for the record, he also calls me his “husband.” When we use that language, we’re signaling that we’re legally married — no longer sweethearts, boyfriends or the ambiguous “partners.”

We’re not, however, announcing gendered aspects of our relationship, as your question implies. (Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the boyfriend of Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team, was incorrectly called out by some as Sam’s “wife” and “trophy wife” on social media, highlighting the traditional stereotypes of “husband/wife” roles.)

Put another way: When a heterosexual couple use “husband” or “wife,” are they disclosing what goes on behind closed doors, or who does the dishes vs. who takes out the garbage? I don’t think so; they’re simply using the conventional terms for a married couple. A gay man, engaged to his fiance, spoke for many on my Facebook page when he posted this response to your question: “When we marry I will call him my husband because he will be, and I will be his. Neither of us [assumes] opposing gender roles and we would never use any terms that reveal our sexual roles.”

But why not use “partner”? First of all, it is confusing. Before we married, Jim and I called each other “partners,” and I can’t tell you how many times we were asked, “What business are you guys in?” I also asked Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that overturned Prop. 8 in California, for their take: “Once married, we switched from calling each other ‘partner’ to ‘husband.’ We have personally fought so hard to use that word and it DOES matter. Everyone knows what that word means. It has global recognition. And we love saying it, too!”

In short, once legally wed, spouses — whether straight or gay — have earned the titles “husbands” and “wives.” That doesn’t mean that every gay or lesbian couple will embrace those terms, just as some opposite-sex couples prefer partner or spouse despite their legal status.

I understand that much of this nomenclature is new to you — as it is to many others. But unfamiliar as the words may be, more and more same-sex weddings are in our future. At the UCLA law school’s Williams Institute, scholar Gary Gates explained to me: “In states that have legalized marriage for same-sex couples, about half of those couples get married in the first three years.” In other words, we’re talking about an estimated 200,000 same-sex weddings, not to mention all those “husbands” and “wives.”

But really, it’s not so hard. Take a look at this lovely video of a young boy talking to his newly married gay dad. At first, he’s incredulous: “You’re both husbands?” he asks, scratching his head. “You married each other. That’s funny!” After a moment, he adds: “This is the very first time I saw ‘husbands’ and ‘husbands.’ ” Finally, the amazing kicker: “So that means you love each other.”

Indeed. Leave it to the little ones to show us the way forward.

Do you agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his new column, Civilities. E-mail questions to Steven at stevenpetrow@earthlink.net (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can also reach Steven on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on May 20.

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