Unless They Choose It, Same-Sex Couples Shouldn’t Settle for “Partner”

Edith Windsor acknowledges her supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington.

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Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were together for 40 years before they married in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009 Windsor, was ordered to pay $363,000 in estate taxes because of a federal law called the “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA. Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave their assets to the other spouse without incurring estate taxes. But not same-sex couples, not then. The federal government refused to treat married same-sex couples, like Edie and Thea, the same way as other married couples. Edie challenged DOMA and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. Edie won her case, thereby striking down a section of DOMA. But that decision resolved only a question of federal benefits for legally married gay couples.

In the fight for marriage equality, much emphasis was put on security and government benefits—favorable treatment in tax, inheritance, and insurance status; immigration rights; rights in adoption and custody; decisional and visitation rights in health care. But gay couples also wanted the legitimacy, social standing, dignity, and the recognition of legal marriage. James Obergefell sued the state of Ohio for refusing to recognize his marriage after his husband, John Arthur, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He wanted his name listed as spouse on his late husband’s death certificate. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy states that same-sex couples “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

These two landmark cases declared that gays and lesbians deserve equal respect and dignity under the law, and a recent poll shows acceptance of same-sex marriage is at an all-time high. But while there has been a cultural shift in the acceptance of same-sex marriage, one-third of Americans are still opposed, and legally married gay couples are facing a different kind of discrimination.

My partner of two years and I got married last year. My first visit to the doctor’s office as a married person was an eye-opening experience. On my paperwork, the receptionist listed my wife as my partner. I felt the term was weird because the only reference to our relationship status was on our joint insurance policy, which listed us as spouses. When I confronted the receptionist on why she had my wife listed as my partner, she rolled her eyes and said, “What’s the difference? It’s not like it’s a slur.” I told her that words matter, and we are legally married. I politely insisted that she change it.

Many nonmarried and married LGBTQ couples use the inclusive term “partner” or “life partner” to refer to their significant other to reject heteronormative gender assumptions. Many progressive heterosexual married couples also use the term “partner” to reject patriarchal gender labels. But inclusivity was definitely not the intention of the receptionist that day. Her intention was to render my legal marriage invisible. By purposely using the term “partner” or girlfriend/boyfriend—when you know a gay couple is legally married—you are intentionally refusing affirmation and recognition of their legal marriage; it’s an obvious sign of disapproval because it’s not done to our heterosexual married counterparts. The doctor’s office was creating a different standard for legally wed gay couples than for legally wed straight couples. This type of microaggression casts our marriages as second-class and not worthy of legitimacy. One doesn’t have to agree with our same-sex marriages to recognize its social standing and legitimacy and extend that recognition to our relationships.

After our wedding, I made a conscious decision to refer to my partner as my wife; not because “partner” was a bad term or no longer described her role in my life, but because of the cultural significance and weight of the words “wife/spouse.” I also made a conscious decision to call out those intentional microaggressions that render my marriage invisible. To be clear, I am very aware that I am privileged to work and live in an environment that allows me to freely use the words spouse/wife without serious consequences; not all queer people do. Employment nondiscrimination and housing laws only protect 50 percent of LGBTQ people from being unfairly fired, not hired, discriminated against in the workplace, unfairly evicted, or denied housing. So I’m certainly not suggesting calling out microaggressions when it’s not safe to do so.

But ultimately, there is power in language. We fought for the word “marriage” instead of civil unions, not only because of the legal benefits, but because marriage is recognized and dignified by society; words matter when it comes to defining and classifying our intimate relationships. In the words of Edie Windsor: “I mean forget all the financial stuff—marriage … symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world. And it’s known all over the world. I mean, wherever you go, if you’re married, that means something to people, and it meant a difference in feeling the next day.”

Read more of Outward’s Visibility Issue.