June 28, 2013

Joan Steinau Lester is a writer in Northern California and co-founder of the Equity Consulting Group. Her books include “Eleanor Holmes Norton: Fire in My Soul,” “The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas” and “Mama’s Child.”

As wonderful as it feels to know that the federal government now recognizes my spouse Carole and me for purposes of taxes, Social Security benefits and more than 1,000 other rights, I need one more thing: a word.

I want non-gendered terminology that will allow me to publicly express my abiding commitment to the wonderful woman who has been at my side for 32 years.

We did this; we did that. “We” is easy. But when I get into a conversation that requires something more specific, when I reach the clause where married heterosexuals casually say “my husband” or “my wife,” I’m stuck.

My default descriptor for years has been “partner.” But it sounds so distant and businesslike that many people assume I mean a business associate. When I try to correct the misunderstanding — “She’s my life partner” — I get odd looks.

I’ve tried various options. “I’d like you to meet my sweetie” was how I introduced Carole to my ex-husband long ago, after she and I had pledged our private vows. To which he replied, “I don’t know what that means.”

Once, feeling brave, I tried out “my lover” in a department store. I blushed at the intimacy, feeling as if I were describing my woman-on-the-side to the surprised clerk.

After learning Spanish, I briefly affected “compañera.” I liked it, but barely anyone understood my meaning. Then I experimented with “mate” and felt like a sea captain.

Sometimes when I’m out alone, people ask, “Where’s your friend?” It takes me a moment to realize who they mean. My friend? Well, she is that, too, but “friend” isn’t strong enough. On the other hand, “soul mate” is too intense and “bed mate” hardly appropriate for general conversation. Nor can I bring myself to call Carole “the joy of my life” when doing something as mundane as, say, booking flights.

Since we married in 2008, when it was legal in California,I’ve occasionally ventured “spouse.” I’m grateful that Carole and I had the chance to legally say “I do,” but “spouse” is a chilly word. It’s accurate but so clinical that some people do double takes.

These days I sometimes hear younger women use “my wife,” but while I applaud their boldness, that word carries too much baggage for me — a former wife. I spent years in my 20s deconstructing the history of the term, which connoted male sexual property. Recently, in an attempt to be hip, I threw it into conversation, feigning a nonchalant tone, but the word troubles me.

Despite the Supreme Court striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act this week, I fear stumbling forever: “My legally wed sweetie — that’s my pillow-partner, the companion of my years, my main squeeze. The woman whose devotion sustained me when my dad passed; she with whom I commingle funds, nurture grandchildren and plan vacations. She whose warm body curled against my back helps me fall sleep.”

I want a word analogous to “wife” but free of its shackled history. Now that the court has granted us federal status, I hope that linguistic innovation will not lag far behind.