Part I: Background
The legalization of marriage for same-sex couples became a reality in Washington state last weekend. It is my adopted state and I have lived here for 19+ years. As marriage equality becomes available in each state, it rekindles a conversation for me about labels. Specifically, a conversation about the labels that denote spouse in a gendered way, i.e. wife.
My mother and my sister, both married to men, both mentioned to me that they don’t like it. When I was a child, I thought I was going to grow up and get married and of course, be a wife. I had no concept of sexuality or of my own sexuality when these thoughts were planted. It was what I saw around me. It seemed natural, like breathing or eating.
Then I learned more about the history of marriage, and how for most of recorded history women were property and marriage was about the exchange of property – including human chattel. The idea of marrying for love was very new. I could go into a longer discussion about this, but entire books have been written on it in a much more cogent manner that I could speak. Then I came out as queer. After I fell in love with a woman, and chose to make my life with her, marriage became something for other people – that is, straight people or closeted queer people who were desperately trying for something else. As with other things that weren’t available to me, I suppressed any desire for it and put it behind the shop window.
When same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington state by the electorate last month, I felt as though that glass window I was pressing my nose against evaporated. I was destabilized and disoriented. Marriage, while recognized by my state but not the federal government, was suddenly something I could participate in, if I so choose. I feel solid in my relationship. I do not need any government approval or imprimatur. However, I recognize that marriage gives access to certain rights that might make things easier for me.
But let’s leave all that behind and talk about the word we all came here for: WIFE. Some of my friends know about my discomfort with the word, particularly as it applies to queers. I asked my friends on Facebook how they felt about the word. Their responses covered the spectrum, from utter joy to complete dissatisfaction:
1 – complete and utter enjoyment
2 – more or less neutral
3 – varying degrees of discomfort
4 – a few who liked “wife” but didn’t like “husband”
5 – A couple of my male friends responded and overwhelmingly they indicated that they love being referred to as “wife”.
Part II: Discussion
(For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to use the term “parents” but please feel free to replace it with any term that suits your experience.) It’s easy for me to get sidetracked about the personal feelings about this label, but after our friends got married last weekend, we had an interesting discussion about the ramifications and ripple effect adopting this label has for parents, particularly ones who may be having difficulty accepting their children’s same-sex relationships, but even for families that are accepting. There is often this funny ballet that occurs when a parent gets the opportunity to introduce the couple. Sometimes no mention is made of the nature of the relationship between the couple; sometimes it might be indicated by partner, which imparts its own ambiguity and confusion . I have often wondered if the reticence is based on a desire to protect the people being introduced, although it might equally be a desire for the parent to remain closeted, such is the power of the stigma attached to homosexuality.
But having the decision taken out of the parents’ hands may relieve this confusion and pressure. Now, it is not up to the person making the introduction to be the interlocutor; the state has made the determination. The parent is not seen as condemning or condoning their child’s relationship. It is a legally binding contract. They are stating a legal status.
Wife is a role, but also a legally defined status and relationship. We impose meaning on everything. It’s what humans do. Like President Barack Obama, my own feelings about wife are evolving. I love being shocked and surprised when I hear a woman has a wife (or a man has a husband). It signifies I am not alone. I am always looking for connections, overlaps, ways in which I am like other people. This one little word can convey so much. Wife encapsulates so much meaning and is being reinvented as access to marriage spreads across the country. I keep trying to imagine the label for myself, tripping over the word as I apply it to my relationship. Instead of feeling like I have to adopt a role or become what I think a wife is, I can allow myself, like my friends, to reinvent the word and create and expand the meaning so it can be comfortable for everyone.