Terms of Endearment: Not Just Semantics

With valentines day on the horizon, it is a good time to consider terms that translate to LGBTQ experience!  The short totally non-scientific survey I posted here a couple of weeks ago was intended to explore the tensions involved in the terms we use, many inherited from “hetero” experience.  The responses to the survey do support one fact: we are living in one of the most historically significant times in LGBTQ history!

In that survey I asked people to share their preferences related to the terms they use to WCS logodesignate their intimate relationships.  We are just six month away from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized marriage for same-sex couples, and suddenly the terms, even on marriage licenses for all people, had to shift.  But long before this benchmark decision that instantly opened the doors for marriage for all, LGBTQ people have struggled with terminologies to declare to each other and to others the nature of their important relationships.  Some people used the traditional  terms “husband” and “wife” long before legal marriage, partly as a way to acknowledge their same-sex committed relationship, often involving a certain degree of playful gender-bending!

The tension around terminology is what inspired my little survey.  Since it is totally non-scientific, I will refrain from drawing any conclusions, but will share some of the interesting comments and descriptions that illustrate that we are dealing with significant meanings – not just semantics!

On preferred terms for your intimate relationship:

  • None of them are great, but I prefer the ones that are the most gender-neutral
  • Spouse, because it conveys that we are married without gendered baggage. I particularly prefer it in situations where I want to avoid people jumping to the, “Oh, so you used to be bi, but now you’re …” conclusion.
  • Wife. Although I prefer to not use the term “belongs” as a possessive, we belong with each other and fill the role of wife for each other. Those roles may or may not match traditional meanings of the word wife, but it works for us on a personal level. Publicly, we may also use the term partner out of habit. Since we are now legally married, I (and as far as I know, we) prefer “wife.”
  • Partner. I’ve used it for the 30+ years we’ve been together and is most descriptive of how we “do” our relationship. I use wife when I want to make a point — that we are legally married. I use “other mother of my children” when the conversation has to do with the kids are when I want to watch how people cope with our family definition.
  • I prefer partner because this implies a more shared experience and less role definition than others. Husband or wife provides a more recognizable foundation and commitment.
  • It depends on the commitment level in the relationship. Once a serious relationship, I prefer Partner. I do not like the historical connotation of “wife”, and although I grew up with “lover” that now seems way too personal! I like “partner” because it describes to be the interdependence in a committed relationship. I do also use “spouse” when I want someone to know that we are married.
  • Partner, Spouse, Hubby are preferred because they are gender neutral. (I am a cis-gender bisexual woman. My partner is DMAB, identifies as non-binary/gender-fluid)
  • I call my partner “my person”. I feel like it best expresses our relationship to each other–he is my special person who shares my life.
  • partner – its not gender based
  • Date mate, I’m not a boy or girl so I would want neutral terms & mate is a more friendly term & your “lover” should be more like a friend.
  • Partner….just seems the best to me…..sometimes wife….sometimes SO
  • partner or significant other; I don’t like the traditional heterosexual options of wife or spouse, and girlfriend doesn’t seem appropriate for mature women.
  • Lover; because that’s the core of the relationship
  • I like partner and soon, I will be a wife (to a woman). She prefers to be called spouse after we are married.

On terms you prefer not to use, and why:

  • I prefer not to use “wife,” although there are situations when it comes in very handy – sometimes for the shock factor alone! Nobody expects a woman to refer to her wife .. and it is a handy way to come out very specifically. But I do not like it because of the traditional connotations of someone who “obeys,” who “submits” and who has very few rights in a relationship.
  • Girlfriend. Unless we are “playing”, it is a bit condescending to us.
  • Lover. That’s no ones business.
  • I cringe at the word lover, because this gives me a sense of a physical relationship only without the emotional and spiritual connection I associate with intimacy.
  • “Lover” because I find it makes some people uncomfortable. I think it makes some people think that our relationship is only about sex and that creates an awkward, “ick-factor” for some less enlightened people. I already have enough issues when talking to some people about my relationship without adding that.
  • boyfriend or girlfriend—I avoid the use of boy and/or girl for adults. I raised my son that way.
  • Girlfriend. Yuck. High school
  • I don’t use gendered terms. I am genderqueer/nonbinary and he is also nonbinary, so gendered terms don’t apply to us. Beyond that though, gendered terms of endearment carry with them the cultural connotations of that role–being a “girlfriend” or a “husband” has historical and commercial connotations. Best to just transcend that shit and be a person, no?
  • really just stuff like ‘lover’ & gender orientated terms
  • Husband and bf wd just not work
  • wife–too close to heteronormativity
  • Wife—has too many negative connotations for me of the old heterosexual model of “wife and mother” taking care of the house.
  • Wife. I never married and don’t expect to. The term has connotations of subservience.


About Peggy L Chinn

feminist, nurse activist, writer, founding editor of ANS Advances in Nursing Science, quilter, grandmother nurturing the future of the amazing children in my life.
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