A few years back, my dad came to me for advice. He and Cathy (not her real name) had been together for years but had no intention of getting married. Dad (not his real name) laid the problem out before me.
“We’re trying to figure out how I should introduce Cathy to people,” he said. Having attended the New Dawn Academy of Modeling and Charm School as a child, I was well versed in the etiquette of introductions.
“You simply say, ‘So-and-So, I’d like you to meet Cathy. Cathy, this is So-and-So,'” I told him, wondering if I should be concerned about his inability to remember such a simple thing at only 50-some years old.
“No, no,” Dad assured me, “that’s not the problem. We need to find a title that fits. Something like ‘girlfriend’ but not ‘girlfriend.'”
“Not ‘girlfriend.’ We’re not in high school!” Cathy chimed in.
Now that I understood the issue at hand more thoroughly, I knew I had the answer. I suggested ‘partner.’ To my surprise, this was a definite no-go. Shrieking something about it sounding “like we’re painting houses together,” Cathy vetoed that one too. This was going to be tougher than I’d thought. I was just about to dig in and offer up a slew of options when my dad said the most ridiculous thing to me. With a completely straight face, I swear to God he said, “We’ve been thinking about ‘my lady friend.'”
It was one of those moments when you realize the generation gap between you and your parents is more like a generation chasm that can never, ever be bridged. Lady friend?! Good lord. It sounds like some kind of euphemism used to refer to lesbians in the 1800s: Lord Bellingford, I’d like you to meet Winifred and her lady friend Amelia. The two are traveling companions and will sail for the colonies a fortnight hence!
“Um, yeah. That’s going to come across like ‘This is my lady friend Cathy. Please don’t ask where my wife is,'” I informed them.
Seeing that these people were too far beyond even my help, I gave up. “How about ‘This is Cathy, my bitch?'” I joked. They didn’t find it as funny as I did.
Flash forward a number of years; karma is indeed a bitch. Being newly wed myself, ‘my girlfriend’ doesn’t seem an accurate term for my girlfriend anymore and I find myself trying to figure out how I should introduce her to people.
I’ve always been partial to ‘partner’ despite any house painting inferences it might draw. To me it suggests equality in a relationship and I like that. But there’s also my desire to make known to the world that we are now legally married, like my friend Frances, who deliberately introduces people to her ‘wife’ and corrects anyone who refers to her as otherwise. It seems to me there is a certain tiny but important activism in that.
But I’ve been threatened with divorce for using ‘wife.’ It may also have something to do with that fact that I can’t say it with a straight face and giggle like an idiot whenever I try to. It conjures up images of my studly butch in a frilly apron with a beehive hairdo which is just not right.
For all you smartypantses who will now suggest ‘lady friend,’ add a parasol to the above image and you’ll see that it just won’t fly.
As someone who never gave a rat’s ass about gay marriage until I decided to have one, I find myself perpetually conflicted. I used to see marriage as something patriarchal that straight people did and I saw no need to take part in it. I now see marriage as a celebration of love and commitment and it pisses me off when straight people feel they own that.
But, of course, things are never so black and white. Wading through the traditions and formalities and deciding what to embrace and what to reject is no easy task. To wife or not to wife is no longer the question; how to refer to my masculine-identified partner to whom I am legally wedded is.
One answer came when I ran into a friend recently. She introduced me to her baby–I really mean a baby, not her ‘baby’–and I, delirious and giggly from hours in the sun, introduced her to ‘my wife.’ The wife gave me a look that could bend metal and my friend exclaimed that her partner would kill her if she ever referred to her as her wife. “I call her ‘my mister,'” she told us and we immediately adopted the term.
Still, for me, ‘my mister’ only works in queer circles. While it’s apt and fun, it requires a certain background understanding that the straight person at the bank or the doctor’s office or the grocery store is not likely to have. I have no desire to spend my days explaining gender politics to strangers so I’m afraid we’re back to the drawing board.
So what’s a new bride to do? We didn’t cover this at the New Dawn Academy.