My friend Steph says that if you haven’t put a ring on her finger, you don’t get to call her your wife.
I get that. I agree with her. Now that marriage has arrived in my neighborhood, most of the well-worn excuses for not marrying your girlfriend (squeeze, babe, fiancée, fill in the blank) have disappeared here in Florida. That is, unless you never really intended to marry her, but that’s a story for another day.
And with that ruling a couple of weeks ago – with the accessibility born out of proximity – what do we call each other now? Yes, I know it’s simple. Hold on, my first point is not the answer to that question.
Because we couldn’t legally marry before, it was common in gay and lesbian life to hear us say we were married. Wife, spouse, other half. The words were common, even if they were technically inaccurate. We peppered our conversations liberally with them, introduced each other and freely appropriated them even if we couldn’t appropriate the benefits…or (dare I say) obligations.
This practice becomes more and more dubious as the sacrament (ahem, I mean status) becomes widely available to us. We must be mindful of the words we use to define our place in the landscape of relationships. And while I’ve often been accused of being too literal I will hop right up on Steph’s bandwagon and say: you don’t get to call her your wife if you haven’t married her!
I hear some of you already: it doesn’t matter, it’s only a word! Or you rail: they are just labels and we need to redefine ourselves, shed the hetero mold! Not so, I say. We used those words before because we wanted to broadcast our commitment and mark the legitimacy of our relationships. Take note, we are here and we are as real as you are.
We used those words even if we stole them, because we couldn’t claim the institution.
When you say “wife,” it marks the very real, very deep love, honor and faith you have found in each other. It proves your desire and capacity to hold and protect one another. On a more mundane level, take what Steph had did: for her, it meant that she got on a plane (train, bus, road trip) after having retained a pet-sitter (perhaps a lawyer or accountant), hired a justice of the peace, booked a hotel (or stayed with friends) and took some time off work. Regardless of whether you traveled, it does indeed mean you have bound yourself to each other in ways that are larger than your condo.
When you say “wife” and you have not done any of that…especially if it’s available to you at the nearest city hall, you have stolen the word. It diminishes what those of us who did all of that did, in all of that.
It means you have made her with a word, and it means you can un-make her as easily as you can throw her out of your condo. It implies a risk you haven’t taken, a cost you haven’t stepped up to and a commitment you haven’t made. It gives you status where there is none.
We may have thought it was cute at one time, but calling her your wife means more than telling the world you wake up together. Don’t get me wrong – to marry or not is not my question here. I will never advocate for marriage where it doesn’t belong. I’m saying you are lying if you use it when you are not. I say you have not earned it.
In the straight world:
- What is your opinion of a man who calls his live-in girlfriend his wife?
- What do you think when you hear a woman introduce her boyfriend as her husband?
- What do you really think when your cousin (aunt, niece, brother, best friend) has been walking around “engaged” for the last four or five (maybe six, ten) years?
If you’re generous you’ll say they are deluding themselves. Likely your judgment is harsher than that. You know I’m right.
Okay, so you’re with me, you get it, you’ve hopped on and I’ve made room for you on the seat to my right. For now, let’s go back to the language of legal coupling. Wife. You say it still doesn’t sit well. You don’t like the word.
• She’s my girl, I’m crazy about her and I wouldn’t marry anyone else.
• It just sounds…alien!
• I’m not sure why I don’t like it. Isn’t there some other word we could use?
No, there isn’t. For now, there is no other word for legally married female spouses. But I ask you, isn’t that exactly what we’re fighting the good – marriage equality – fight for? To be treated like all those who have been married before us? Should we want to be called something else?
Wife. Up until now, using the word felt a bit contrived. The word comes with baggage – it meant male-dominated. It invites all sorts of uncomfortable questions: if there is no male, which of you is the husband? Are they poking at our dynamics or at our privacy? What Pandora’s Box are we opening, and where do we go once we’ve opened it? It feels exposed…naked. There are still conversations to be had. They will come and they won’t always be comfortable. They (and perhaps you) will say they are not ready for all this. But there will be learning.
Wife. It was “only a word” when a word was the most it could be.