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why does it irk me when straight people use the term "partner"?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer Claire Landsbaum explores the question: why am I bugged by straight people using the word "partner"?
My problem feels insignificant but it’s also been irritating me to no end, to the point I keep questioning why it bothers me so much. My partner recently came out as non-binary and wanted me to drop all gendered language (which I did with no problem). Since then I’ve been more aware of gendered language used by others in reference to my partner, others, and myself. I’ve noticed many cis-women often avoid using gendered language. [This] is cool and very welcome, but it bleeds into calling their cis-male boyfriends, fiancées, and husbands…“partner” instead of a gendered label.
I understand the desire to move towards more inclusive language, but sometimes….it feels like [they’re] trying to camouflage into a queer space, as I often assume they are queer until I meet or see a picture of their cis-male significant other. I use “partner” because that is the term my significant other wants me to use, but for my queer friends with partners who are not cis, it’s also a way to shield them and their partner from uninvited questions or potential harm. Am I getting annoyed at a complete non-issue, or are non-queer people trying to slip into queer spaces and doing so by masking themselves through the utilization of queer language? — Bunny18, she/they
There's a very specific kind of disappointment that comes with someone referencing their "partner" in conversation, only to reveal that they're in a heterosexual relationship. The term has always felt coded to me — like, wink, nudge, me too. When you realize that you’re not speaking to someone who sees and knows a massive part of your identity, it can be a bummer.
It can also feel, regardless of intention, misleading. When I moved into my building, an overly-friendly neighbor provided me a sense of security by repeatedly referencing his “partner,” who I later found out was a cis woman. My understanding of those interactions shifted in that moment, and I went from feeling safe – rightfully or not — to a little creeped out.
All that is to say, no, I don’t think your question is trivial. There’s been so much written about whether straight, cis people in heterosexual relationships should use the term “partner.” I happen to feel strongly about the topic based on the aforementioned personal experience (and about a thousand others). But there’s a lot to consider about why someone might want to use the term “partner” instead of, say, “boyfriend” or “husband.” And understanding intention seems like the key to addressing your concerns about who has access to queer space.
It’s impossible to say who “owns” a term like “partner.” American English is a hodge-podge language, and our modern-day colloquial version takes and appropriates from all sorts of uncredited cultures and groups. If you ask Mirriam Webster’s editor-at-large, for instance, the first recorded use of the word “partner” in the Oxford English Dictionary was by a 16th-century heterosexual couple. But I’m willing to bet that LGBTQ+ people’s use of the term flew under the historical/academic radar for a long time.
I do know that “partner” became popular in the 20th Century before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, as a way to refer to a long-term, essentially spousal relationship. As you point out, it gave queer people cover in potentially unsafe spaces, allowing them to refer to their significant other without revealing that person’s gender and thereby outing themselves.
In other words, for a long time, queer people used “partner” as a way to protect themselves. Many still do, especially in parts of the country (and the world) that are openly hostile to us. Mark McBeth, an associate professor of English at City University of New York who studies linguistics, says he often reverts to “partner” instead of “husband” when he visits his small Pennsylvania hometown. “I come from a generation when gay people were beat up just for saying so,” he tells me. “So there are times when I look at whoever I'm talking to and try to figure out how they're going to react.”
Then you have people like the ones you described: ostensibly straight, cis women who are using the term not for safety, but for other reasons. Unfortunately, the vocabulary we’ve traditionally used to define relationships is steeped in patriarchy. Heterosexual people — particularly women — who aren’t down with traditional gender roles, and who may feel averse to the subservience ascribed to “wife,” or the infantilization that comes with “girlfriend,” might opt for “partner” as an equalizer. It’s also worth noting that not every straight couple wants to get married, either, even though our society is designed to reward them for doing so.
I also know a fair number of cis women who have historically been straight, but who are starting to explore their own gender identity and sexuality. For many of them, the first step in this journey is the realization that the rigid language of heteronormativity isn’t a comfortable fit. In the case of “partner,” “the language itself sets up a kind of inclusive space,” McBeth explains. One of the beautiful things about queerness is that it acknowledges language as both serious and unserious, a malleable tool to use in whatever ways feel validating.
I’ve used “partner” to refer to nonbinary people I’ve dated seriously, but sometimes I’ll throw in a “boyfriend” for those who enjoy the term or want to code more masculine in that moment. As a queer person brought up in the framework of heteronormativity, I like the idea of reclaiming a dynamic (“boyfriend/girlfriend”) that once felt stifling. In theory, straight people who say “partner” are doing the same thing: using language that feels revelatory for them.
Of course, there’s a difference between giving yourself space to explore language and telegraphing queerness without intention or introspection. This, I think, is where straight people using the term “partner” rubs some the wrong way. As Sadie Graham wrote for Vice in 2018, everyone in academia “has a partner. The coy almost-queerness of it: We’re straight but not like that; too serious, too aware, or too intellectual for the juvenile boyfriend/girlfriend terminology.” If someone is using “partner” purely to virtue signal, that merits some skepticism. Using a term adopted by a marginalized group to describe a (presumably) non-marginalized relationship, with zero awareness as to why, can be problematic.
it’s all about context
Ultimately, “all language is context bound,” McBeth says. It’s important, then, to “increase the sensitivity of our linguistic radar” — to pay attention to “who is saying the word ‘partner’ and to whom,” or “who’s the encoder of that word and who’s the decoder.” He cites language philosopher J.L. Austin’s theory that words don’t just describe situations; they do things. The words “I do” in a marriage ceremony, McBeth says, set a host of things in motion: tax documents, insurance amendments, hospital visitation privileges. It sounds like, when you feel leery about cis women using the word “partner,” you’re really asking: What is this word doing, linguistically, in this moment? Is it aligning with you? Keeping you at arms’ length? Mocking or disparaging you?
Even more important, does this cis/het person with a “partner” see their work as starting and ending with the term? Or are they actively engaged in processes of self-exploration that will benefit LGBTQ+ people in the long run? In general, queer people see the concept of gender as something we can play with, complicate, bend and change to fit how we feel in any given moment. Straight people, in using the term “partner,” seek to erase gender altogether — to represent a kind of progress linguistically that isn’t necessarily reflected in our culture. It can come across as kind of disingenuous, especially if they’re not doing anything else to move the needle.
When you pay attention to someone’s intentions, it becomes easier to decide how to feel. And I think, like a lot of things, there will be moments when you’ll appreciate someone’s use of “partner,” and moments when it’ll feel kind of gross. I don’t think it’s on you — or any of us — to single-handedly safeguard queer spaces. But you can control who gets access to you and your beautiful queer life: your space, your time, your effort. And if you tune your linguistic radar, you’ll be able to pick out those moments that feel wrong and act accordingly.
There’s also my favorite hack: just ask! If someone references their “partner,” you might enthusiastically say, “Are you queer too?” Their reaction will tell you a lot about how and why they’re using that phrase — and might even make them consider those things more deeply.