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 [ref]
“I like it. I worked hard for it. I use it all the time. I’m conditioning the masses. You’re welcome.” -RK
“That’s what I call [my wife] whenever I refer to her to people who don’t know her. I think it is important to use those terms to redefine them. She occasion [sic] refers to me that way too and I like it, although I prefer husbian.” KH
“I love being K’s wife. But it drives both batty when people refer to her as my wife. Total gender role comprehension fail.” -MG
“I like the term. I would be perplexed if someone used that term to refer to me right now, since I’m single. But I would like to be a wife someday. (and now it’s legally possible to even dream of it!)” -MS
“What’s weird is that now I have to stop using it until the wedding” -NG
“I love it. It’s also a much nicer word than “husband” but I like both because they’re the words for our commitment …” -TK
“I like “wife”. It makes it our relationship clear. “She’s not my friend. She’s my wife!”” -NN
“I like being a wife and being referred to as one, because it’s my husband who does the referring. Makes me feel like I made the right choice because it would probably grate otherwise.” -RR
“I like it. I didn’t like it the first time.” -RVW
“I think it depends on tone and context. It was a strange and exciting role name to grow into when we first married. K and I use “husband” and “wife” in similar contexts, so it’s not derogatory or offensive. But I could see how in some situations it could be used that way.” -LHS
“As a political statement, I love finally being able to call Z my wife and vice versa. As a cultural statement, I consider it more of a camp role. . . like, will you be the wife today?” – RG
“When asked my an ex-military man the other day at Boeing how my husband felt about my traveling so much, I replied in front of the whole group, “My wife handles it really well.” It had more resonance than expected inside me and felt different than if I’d said, “My partner handles it well…” Something about using his language in a way that made me feel powerful and proud. I liked if.”[/ref]
2 – more or less neutral [ref]
“I look over my shoulder to see who they’re talking about.” – ARG
“It’s odd. It took me a full year after being married to come to some sort of peace with it. I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just a descriptor, but it is definitely odd. Now I like it–it’s nice to be someone’s wife. And that someone else is my husband. And, I think it makes sense for 2 women who are married to be wives to each other. They are each someone’s wife!” – JS1[/ref]
3 – varying degrees of discomfort [ref]
“It’s odd. I guess I will learn to get used to it.” -RB
“A has never, ever called me that. With friends she says “boifriend” but usually she says “partner.” I like it that way.” -CC
“This hetero hates “wife” and “husband” we use spouse.” -RM
“After more than 14 years of being married to a man, I still don’t like wife or husband, but I tolerate it because, as someone said, it’s what connotes commitment in our society.” -JS2
“I’ve never cared for it, & now that it could apply to me, I’m checking in to see how I feel. So far, it feels a little like saccharin.” -MP
“M calls me her wife, which provokes all kinds of mixed feelings in me, even now after being married five years. I always react to it — always. On the one hand, I’m proud to be her wife. On the other hand, I grew up during the time of “partner” and it is 100% natural for me now. Wife always sounds like a bizarre and foreign term — like a foreign language (the language of other people and other relationships) has suddenly been applied to me. I feel like a married person but I’m not sure I feel like a “wife”. Partner always connoted equality and also a relationship that was not traditional. That always fit with me — I did not aspire to become a wife. It also provided a way to be known to others without triggering homophobia. I think in some ways, I am afraid to use wife — I don’t want to trigger shock or disgust. Partner can create confusion but it rarely triggers a strong emotional reaction. Taking over the straight word, on the other hand, does. I think, after 20 years, I’ve just hard-wired partner into my brain. Wife always feels shocking and even slightly dangerous. But it is the right word — maybe someday it will feel natural for me.” -SK
“I hated the word when I first got married because to me it had a negative connotation. A wife was someone who made you do chores and rained on your happy parades. So for at least a year I’d announce “I’m the best wife ever” as I walked through the door with pizza and beer. And there were never any honey do lists. After almost ten years, there still are no honey do lists. But now I’m off the I’m not the best-wife-ever idea. I’m not the grumpy mean no fun bitch I thought “wife” was. I’m just a wife. I make the word. I’m a female person who is married aka wife. I’m over the negative connotation as it applies to me personally but I still am not fond of the word.” -MW
4 – a few who liked “wife” but didn’t like “husband” [ref]
“I don’t mind wife but I hate husband because it feels like to have a husband means I am property. So I use partner and R says wife.” -JB
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[ref]”Oh, you work together? What sort of work do you do?” (This was actually said to me by an aunt.)[/ref]. 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.