Flora Gosling explores whether or not straight couples using gender-inclusive language such as “partner” helps or hinders the LGBTQ+ community.
“Hey everyone, this is Brandon. He’s my… er…” Boyfriend? Better half? Some guy I met outside Hive last week? Knowing what to call the person you’re in a relationship with used to be much simpler. More couples were married, on the surface more couples were straight presenting, and more couples would tie the knot in their early twenties so they weren’t together long before they could use the terms “husband” and “wife”. With each generation the attitudes around marriage, gender roles, gender identity, sexuality, and monogamy change for the better, and we need to find new ways to introduce each other. “Partner” has become increasingly popular for all kinds of relationships, but recently a controversial debate cropped up on Twitter about whether heterosexual couples should use the term “partner” to refer to each other, as opposed to simply “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”.
The broad consensus was yes, of course, they should. But it’s useful to look at why the term has become popular, and why some people are hesitant about it being used widely. All words for “person I am dating” are flawed in some way or another. “Husband” and “wife” have gendered connotations; for example, synonyms such as “the wife”, “the missus”, or “the ball and chain” give the impression that women are a commodity and a burden. “Girlfriend” and “boyfriend” are infantilising – I’m a grown woman and in no other area of my life do I allow myself to be referred to as “girl”, so why should “girlfriend” get a pass? “Life partner” has a level of spirituality and commitment that not everyone feels comfortable with. “Lover” has ties with adultery. “Significant other” is overly formal – the list goes on. Practically speaking, “partner” is as straight-forward and devoid of connotations as it gets.
More to the point, if using “partner” is normalised, it relieves queer and questioning people from having to either out themselves or lie in social situations they might not feel comfortable in. Moving the emphasis away from gender is a critical point not just in terms of sexuality but being inclusive of all gender identities as well. Any honorific system that works on the basis of a gender binary ultimately needs to be deconstructed or at least widened, since in a society where there are more than two genders, it simply isn’t practical.
That’s not to say everyone should use “partner” by default, but being open to using gender-inclusive language as a cishet person can be influential in showing allyship and creating safe spaces. As subtle as something like “partner” is, it demonstrates for those who care to notice that you don’t mind that others in the room don’t know the gender of the person you’re dating. In other words, no-one who has just met you can tell if you’re straight, gay, bisexual or anything else. Being open to ambiguity shows a progressive mindset and serves as a healthy reminder that it’s impossible to tell if someone is queer just by looking at them.
One of the tweets that sparked this discourse was: “Straight girls be like “my partner” when the whole time it’s their boyfriend Matt”, playing into the joke that dating a man as a woman is unremarkable and boring. As with so many glib jabs at heterosexual people, it ends up alienating parts of the community the joke was intended for since it adds to the long list of debates that completely cuts bisexual and pansexual people out of the discussion.
All that being said, it’s understandable that some people feel protective about the term “partner”. When gay marriages were illegal, as they still are in so many countries, referring to each other as “partner” added weight to a relationship that couldn’t be legally recognised. There’s a generational divide between older and younger LGBTQ+ communities which is often overlooked in our eagerness to move towards the best and most inclusive language and practices. When we discuss how to change our habits, we’ve got to bear in mind our experience of being LGBTQ+ in the UK isn’t the same as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Queer people currently in their teens and early 20s have never been excluded from hospital rooms because “partner” wasn’t a good enough familial connection during the Aids epidemic for example. Without patronising, it’s important to recognise that the LGBTQ+ community is not a monolith. Even so, generalising the word “partner” overwhelmingly benefits everyone. We can’t afford to treat it like cultural appropriation, because it isn’t – it may have been more popular terminology amongst queer people, but it isn’t rooted in queerness. Nothing is being taken away from us, and anything that removes the stigma and promotes gender neutrality is moving in the right direction. The more heterosexual and cisgender people can learn to embrace gender-inclusive language, the better the outcome for everyone.