I fell in love with a woman 20 years ago. In those 20 years, we have moved across state lines, rented a house, bought a condo, and then sold it to buy a house. Then we sold that one and bought our current home.
We had a civil union ceremony when civil unions were first legal in our state of residence. We got married when marriage was legal in our state several years later. We celebrated when the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
In the middle of all of this, we had three kids. We built a family. We live with the constant struggle to balance work and life while pushing aside stress and fear. We do our best to appreciate the love and joy in our lives, even when it’s hard.
Through all of these events, our relationship status changed on forms and in regards to what each of us had rights to, but the relationship between each other didn’t change. Whether recognized as a marriage or not, we have always had a partnership.
I could call the woman I married my wife, but I don’t.
Lawmakers have rewritten the rules of marriage, so technically Amy is my wife. But I won’t call her that. Amy has always been and always will be my partner.
When Amy and I were in college, brand new to the realization we were more than friends, we didn’t call each other anything. The meaning of what was happening and growing between us was unspoken.
When we finally settled into the understanding that the “something” between us wasn’t going away, we made secret and quiet vows to one another. I had known I was gay for a long time; I was out to a few friends, but no family members. I owned my sexuality, though.
I was Amy’s tipping point. Being gay was a new identity, something she barely knew about herself. I woke something in her she thought would maybe go away. But the thing didn’t go away. The thing between us was lust and love. The next step would be to claim ownership over the feelings and each other.
When heterosexual couples experience these feelings, they have words to describe the extent of their relationship. Boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, husband, wife. As a closeted couple, we didn’t have the luxury of socially accepted labels.
Nor did we have mirrors of ourselves yet. We didn’t have other same-sex couples to compare ourselves too. In fact, before we went to a secret college campus support group and safe space for bisexual women and lesbians, we had never met another same-sex couple.
Amy and I figured we were each other’s girlfriend. But we didn’t have anyone to tell that to, so we just silently belonged to each other.
The wonderful thing that had been quiet for more than a year was not without fear and worry. We worried about hurting those we loved. We feared we would have to sacrifice one love for another. But our secret was too heavy, too big and too meaningful to carry. When the time came to come out, to reveal ourselves, it was as if we were guilty of something and needed to confess to a crime. We didn’t know the words to put to our feelings.
What do we call each other?
While sitting in one of the support group’s evening sessions, we heard an older woman call her person her lover. I can still see the side glance from Amy when we heard lover for the first time. The confidence with which our mentor said it made Amy blush. I can still feel my eyes widen and my jaw tighten from my reaction. Lover was not going to work.
A younger student called her person her girlfriend. Girlfriend was better, but felt a bit silly to us. Like we were friends who were girls, like we were buddies linked arm in arm or besties on our way to the beach. Girlfriend didn’t capture our relationship.
A woman slightly older than us, one who had a relationship too old and long to still be girlfriend status, called her person her partner.
Partner. Yes. It may sound business-like to some, but to us it was and still is exactly the right word. Our relationship has always been a partnership, a commitment with the drive to succeed. Our partnership is a union with a lot on the line. Heterosexual couples reserved the rights to use wife and husband. We didn’t have access to those words, though, so we created our own term for sanctity.
Partner was reserved for a man to dare anyone to deny his love for another man.
Partner was reserved for a woman to allow herself to love and be loved by another woman.
Partner was and is my queer generation’s term to signify our significant other. When two people of the same sex introduce themselves as each other’s partner, it is the same as someone calling another their husband or wife. The word partner is both a declaration of our entanglement and somehow a code, a mystery to solve.
“This is my partner, Amy.”
I have said this sentence with nervous anticipation of a stranger’s reaction. I have said it with pride, with nonchalance, and with a tone of ownership.
I have said this sentence free of worry. I have said it with curiosity and a sly smile, wondering if the person hearing my words understands the meaning of what I just revealed to them.
I have said this sentence so many times I know some of those times were taken for granted.
But even when the word is said without thoughtful intention, the meaning behind the word partner is powerful.
Some queers used the words husband and wife before those words were given to us with marriage equality, and many young queers use them today with as much heteronormative entitlement as their straight friends. But my partner and I do not.
While what we have is worth the definition of marriage, the word wife doesn’t hold the weight of our history, of our struggle, and of our love.
When the world told us what we could not be, we found what we could be.
We found a word that could not be taken away from us. We created meaning where we were told it did not belong.