This isn’t really a response to any one person or situation, but rather a collection of discussions I’ve had over the last few weeks. It feels worth it to talk about publicly because it’s something that is increasingly important to me, and it has come up with various people in different situations.
The short version: I am not your partner, not without qualifiers that designate specifically what kind of partner. I can be your play partner, your writing partner, your partner-in-crime, your friend, your buddy, your fuck buddy, your sweetheart, your lover, your boyfriend.
But I am not your partner.
I grew up in a queer family, before gay marriage was legalized. In my world, marriage had little-to-nothing to do with commitment. One of my mothers had been married and divorced; the other had never been married. And while I understood that there were benefits to marriage, it was never the hallmark of my understanding of commitment.
I also noticed that a lot of queer couples didn’t use spouse-based language to talk about their relationships. “Life partner,” or simply, “partner” was the term most often used to describe relationships that were 10, 20, 50 years strong. That was our language. It was almost a rejection, in ways, of the system that rejected us. We were denied the rights of marriage and had holy unions and domestic partnerships instead. And we didn’t claim the language of a system that we were denied; we used our own and didn’t allow it to be a relegation to less-than. It had power. “My partner” meant something, a mix of commitment and defiance and the sense of coming home.
Partner was the queer term for spouse. It signified commitment, in many ways: something intentional, purposeful, built under pressure over time, and not subject to external approval. It was ours and, to me, still feels like a sacred way to talk about relationships.
Fast forward to the legalization of gay marriage. Suddenly, a whole slew of rights, benefits, and, it turns out, language, was now available to us. And man. Some folks flocked to it. And I get it. My mother should be able to marry her spouse. My sister should. Anyone who wants that should be able to access it. But something happened when we suddenly gained the right to marry- we lost the beauty of self-defined relationships, free from caring about the approval of others.
Suddenly, the only legitimate relationships were ones that could be backed up with legal paperwork. Suddenly, “partner” wasn’t good enough anymore, and began to get tossed around as a term used after the first date with no real thought, intention, or commitment. It became the gender-neutral term for “boyfriend/girlfriend.” (I tend to use “sweetheart” for that). In short, gay marriage killed the queer family (or, at least, did a lot to delegitimize it).
Partner hasn’t lost its meaning to me. Partner is still a term I reserve for exactly two people in my life, both of whom I have intentional, long-term commitments with.
I don’t mind “partner” with qualifiers, because that, to me, speaks to the co-creation of a specific dynamic: play partners, for example. But “partner”? If I call you partner, it’s not without a lot of thought, conversation, and agreement. It’s not without the blessing of my current partners. It’s not without knowing that you know and understand what this term means to me.
“Partner” was the foundation of queer family, one that we uprooted in favor of legally recognized marriage. Scarcity makes us cling tightly, and when we suddenly have access to something we have been denied access to historically, of course we jump on board and cling to that legitimacy. I get it. Assimilation is safer, and I don’t intend to shame those who have shifted their language to spouse-based language. I get the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage; I’m in one (something I constantly find amusing). I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to be married, or to get married. I am saying that the rest of us who build commitments and life and family differently- those who love the beauty of queer family that isn’t dependent on external affirmation- don’t want to be shamed or delegitimized either- and we want our language, the language of rejection and creation, to still have power.
My relationship that includes legal marriage is not more legitimate because we have paper behind it. As a queer person, as a poly person, legal marriage holds very little benchmark for legitimacy for me; I see it as a safeguard for many and a shortcut for some (when it comes to medical power of attorney, etc.) It is one way of designating commitment; the issue is when we start to see that as the only means of legitimizing relationship and family.
So for me? I am not your partner. Partner means something very specific and powerful to me. And I push back every time this comes up- partially because, if I ever do call you my partner, I want that to mean something to you.
I don’t think I could call you partner if it didn’t.