Our society has made remarkable progress in the fight for LGBT equality in my lifetime. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was completed this year, and most Americans support ending discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. In 2010, for the first time, two separate polls indicated that a majority of Americans support the freedom of same-sex couples to marry. The well-documented generation gap in support for LGBT rights ensures that anti-equality forces in the United States are ultimately fighting a losing battle.
But as the GOP presidential primary is so vividly reminding us, much work remains to be done in the struggle for LGBT equality. Of course, the usual suspects in the anti-gay pantheon remain the most vocal exponents of homophobia, but even well-meaning, LGBT-affirming individuals can and often do reinforce homophobia and heterosexism without even knowing that they’re doing it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in the following situation: a supportive, well-meaning friend or family member is introducing me and my spouse to someone we don’t know. This person makes the introduction as follows: “Hi, so-and-so! This is John, and this is his [insert occasional awkward pause here] partner [or 'boyfriend,' or 'lover,' or 'friend'] Michael.”
Michael and I have been married for nearly six years. Still, we regularly find ourselves in the situation outlined above. I suspect that people have a wide variety of reasons for using non-marital terms to describe our relationship in social situations. Perhaps they aren’t (or are?) aware of the religious or political views of others and wish to sidestep any potential awkwardness that might ensue. Perhaps they themselves, while outwardly professing to support equality, still struggle silently with acceptance of our marriage. Perhaps they wish to save us from embarrassment or retribution. Even LGBT-identified friends of ours slip up on occasion, introducing Michael as my “partner” or asking me whether my “boyfriend” and I will be able to attend their holiday party. I suspect that in these cases especially, force of habit is the culprit: same-sex couples have been excluded from the rights and privileges of marriage for so long that many LGBTs don’t even think of committed same-sex relationships in marital terms.
However varied the reasons may be for using less contentious terms to describe our marriage, the result is always the same: it denigrates our love, telling us that our marriage is somehow unworthy of the term, inherently unequal and intrinsically less valuable than the marriages of our straight counterparts. It reinforces the still-powerful cultural taboos surrounding LGBT people and our relationships. It implies that honesty about the nature and definition of our relationship is less important than accommodating the prejudice of others. It tells us that it’s best to be silent.
I am not entirely without guilt here, either. Early in our marriage (perhaps due to my Catholic upbringing or the sometimes sadistic nature of Midwestern politeness), I often adapted my own terminology to suit my audience. For friends, family members, and people under 40 I used the term “husband,” but for elderly and conservative people, and in work-related situations, I retreated into the relative neutrality of “partner.” I’m no longer shy about making universal use of the term “husband,” but I’ve still occasionally been reticent to call others out for neglecting to do so themselves.
I can no longer concern myself with whether or not my marriage makes others uncomfortable. I have to be true to myself, my husband, and the love that we share. I refuse to make any concessions whatsoever to bigotry; from now on, I will correct anyone who disrespects the way Michael and I define our relationship. I will not allow my marriage to be denigrated in my hearing.
Of course, there are some in the LGBT community who make the conscientious decision not to describe their committed relationships in marital terms. I respect those decisions and would never suggest that those relationships are any less equal, committed, valuable, or meaningful than mine. However, decisions about how to define a couple’s relationship are for that couple, and that couple alone, to make. Michael and I define ourselves as husbands (as does the State of Vermont), so referring to us by any other term is a sign of deep disrespect that I, and hopefully others, will no longer tolerate.
This holiday season, when you’re introducing your married LGBT friends at a party, remember to respect the way they choose to define their relationship. Michael is my husband. Get used to saying that, because from now on, I’ll be correcting you if you don’t.