I’ve tried referring to Rose as my wife occasionally, but it feels…off. Granted, we’re not married, but mostly because we can’t be, legally. Calling her my “partner” makes me feel like we’re incorporating a business. “Girlfriend” is what we usually use, but it seems inadequate in light of the 12 years we've been together. I want to use “wife” in a normal, casual way; but “wife” means both more and less for us than it would for your traditional heterosexual setup.
The “Overshare” Aspect
It means more in the sense that when I say, “This is my wife,” you’ll infer about half a dozen pretty personal things at once. First, of course, you’ll establish that we’re gay and, second, that we’re committed to each other, but here you might wonder, committed in what way: did we get married-married, or are we just using the term? Third, you might note that we’ve made a conscious decision to make our non-traditional relationship follow a traditional practice—one that, historically, has been less than great for the women involved. (You could also go down the rabbit hole of wondering if we don’t know about the history of wives or if we’re trying to reclaim the role.) Fourth, it’s implied that I’m confident enough in myself and/or my current social surroundings and proud enough about my relationship to make such a statement out loud. Depending on how you feel about homosexuality, your feelings at this point will be somewhere along the spectrum of “that’s neat” to “how laudable” to possibly disgusted. Fifth, since I’ve made this statement to you, you might conclude that I’m assessing you via your reaction. Are you caught off-guard? Or have I said this to you because I believe you to be progressive enough in your politics to handle such a statement like a mature human being?
The “Next Best Thing to Being Legally Married!” Aspect
“Wife” would also means less for us in a certain sense. Gay marriages, while not novelties, are still novel. They’re new, and some of the best of us are still stumbling over pronouns, boundaries and talking points. We’re in an awkward phase. We’re still reworking our societal notion of “spouse” to include same-sex partners. Further, gay marriages don’t bestow nearly as many rights as heterosexual marriages do. As “wives” and “husbands,” we’re asterisked. And what if you don’t want to identify as either a wife or a husband? Roll up your sleeves. It’s difficult for us to have our marriages just be ours and not larger statements. Just being together feels like a dare: I’m constantly ready to defend my relationship against religious, moral and political arguments; and I have to be ready.
So, having a marriage mean less, in that way, is discouraging; and having it mean more is tiring. At best, it feels like we win a civil rights victory every time we say “wife,” “husband” or whatever your term is—which is huge, but it’s overwhelming to have that looming over every instance of what should be a common word.
The Shrug of Domestic Partnership
I want to dismiss the institution of marriage altogether, but I can’t completely. A few years back, I was given the option to put Rose on my health insurance policy. I did, of course, and it was the first time we’d been officially recognized as a couple by any legal entity. Something about that made our already solid relationship feel even more so. But why? Who cares who Blue Cross Blue Shield thinks is a couple? I can’t deny that it felt nice to be able to do that, though. And I can’t deny that it was heartening to hear these concerns mentioned for the first time in a presidential inaugural address today.
However, the weight of all of this—the politics, the social mores, close but fervently religious family members—actively redefines marriage for the two of us, often making it feel unrelated to the relationship itself. I mean, married or not, we’ll still order Thai food and watch Fringe. We’ll still fight, take the car in for tune-ups, go grocery shopping and forget to buy wine. (Just kidding. We never forget to buy wine.) I’ll still hold her hand and feel lucky just to be next to her. I love her, and if that’s what we have without appending “Mrs.” to it for the rest of our lives, I think we’ll still have a really wonderful thing despite not knowing what to call it.