Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Partners and things

There is something going on in the politically correct English speaking world that puzzles me. It's the deliberate hiding of one's loved one's sex. Say you're straight and you are married, or you got a girlfriend or boyfriend, or you're in a legally recognized relationship of some sort. Invariably your progressive friends will refer to their other halfs as 'partner'. The good intention behind it seems to be that nobody will know (or inquire) about the sex of the person you're with. So, in case you're gay or bi-sexual nobody will find out. How so? Well, whenever your conversation gets to your other half, you'd sneak in the 'partner', thereby leaving open whether or not your partner is of the same or other sex. From conversation with colleagues and friends, I do know that the ambivalent nature of the 'partner' leads to continuing gossip and speculation about whether he or she is gay or straight or something else altogether.

What troubles me about this matter is this: If you live in a country, like Canada, where homosexuality is decriminalized and where in fact gay relationships have more or less equal legal standing to folks in straight relationships, you're sending a troublesome message about the desirability of hiding your sexual orientation. As I see it, with the exceptions of those who are not in relationships (nothing at all wrong with that!), those who live in relationships will find themselves pretty much invariably with folks of the other or of the same sex. What's the point of pretending that we are in a relationship with a mysterious neutral (aka 'partner'), when REALLY we are not? Would we not be better off if people were encouraged not to hide their sexual orientation away by means of kind of neutralizing us for the purpose of our conversations? Why not say that I live with my wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, male/female significant other, name it?

Basically, I wonder, whether real progress lies in hiding away who we are by being 'partners' (in a sex neutral manner). Interestingly, this strategy won't work in may countries. Both in German and French speaking countries this wouldn't work for simple reasons of grammar. You might have a partner in Germany, but if the partner is female it's a 'Partnerin', and if the partner is male it's 'Partner'. So, no obfuscation there.

Anyhow, I'm not entirely sure that I got this one right. You got any views/arguments to share on this one?


  1. I basically agree with you on this one. My own reaction to people talking vaguely about their "partner" has always been to wonder what or what they think they have to hide. Also, I see no progressiveness here, more plain uncertainty. I guess the problem is that we live in societies that not only pays attention to sex and what sort of mixes of those may be found in sexual or amorous relationships, but regularly rate some mixes as more desirable than others. This makes people uncertain also when legal barriers of the sort you mention have been taken away.

  2. It depends on the community you're living in, but the phrases "the
    deliberate hiding" and "what they think they have to hide" miss the
    point. "Deliberate redirection" would be more accurate. I
    routinely refer to my wife of 36 years as my partner: the point is
    to emphasize the relationship at the expense of gender or legal
    status. As far as I recall, this first became popular in the 70's

  3. Living in Vancouver, BC where there is a large population of gay couples, my observation is that the use of the term 'partner' is almost exclusively in reference to a significant other of the same sex and understood so by most. I have also observed this usage in the US and South Africa though it's strikingly the case here. In gatherings of predominantly gay people, however, gender-specific terms are more easily used amongst one another. This suggests that homosexuals themselves are still treading cautiously when outside their comfort zones.

    Not too long ago, I encountered a neighbour driving out the driveway with a man in his car. Until then, we were not sure of his sexuality but had a fair idea given that he routinely entertained men overnight. He boldly introduced his passenger to me as his boyfriend. (Straight women often refer to their 'girlfriends' which is another matter altogether). I was not sure whether or not he was now openly gay but felt quite pleased that he was at least comfortable taking me into his confidence especially since my wife and I are independently and routinely in contact with his elder sister and her homophobic husband.

  4. Is this really an attempt to hide sexual identity or a gesture of solidarity with the GLBT, by emphasizing the relationship and not the gender? I thought that it was an attempt to be inclusive of anyone.

    Perhaps for people living in societies where there was no stigma attached to gays or lesbians, but while things have gotten much better, I don't think we're all there yet.

    Maybe I'm wrong on this, I haven't thought much about it.

  5. In my recollection of the politically correct 90s in Canada, this emerged in certain left and progressive church circles as a response to feminist critiques that "husband & wife" or worse, "man & wife" were sexist and implied inequity in heterosexual couples, which of course there was, in most, and which was many were trying to root out. At that time gay men like me, were still using the term "lover" for their male partners, and since that seemed over-sexualized, and made our erotophobic friends feel kind of creepy, we too appropriated the milk toast "partner." I prefer "boyfriend" for many reason, one of them being that at one time his "partner" was a business partner.

  6. I don't find this a significant issue at all.

  7. Maybe not the most significant issue in the world, but worth having a think about. I find "partner" vaguely irritating. In many contexts, you could just use the person's name. Corporations could just invite you (as an employee) to bring somebody to function, and so on.

    And then there's the assumption behind it that all these relationships are equivalent (that everyone is monogamous when some relationships are open or polyamorous, that all these close relationships are sexual when some may be platonic, etc.).

  8. Of course, sometimes we do want to elide all this and a vague word like "partner" is useful ... so I dunno. :)

  9. ColinGavaghanApril 14, 2010

    So here's the thing. I've been with - um, the woman I live with - for 20-odd years. We aren't married, so referring to her as my 'wife' would be inaccurate. Equally, 'girlfriend' seems somehow too trivial - for me, it has connotations of behind-the-bikeshed smooching, rather than decades of cohabitation.

    So, in contexts where merely using her name is insufficient, the gender-neutral 'partner' term isn't employed out of deference to political correctness or whatever. It's used due to a lack of alternative vocabulary.

  10. The effect is often to obscure the sex of one's partner but surely the intent is, as noted above, to announce one is in a relationship without stating whether that relationship is a marriage or same-sex or opposite-sex: so the intent is equalising.

    I find it a vaguely irritating usage for much the same reason Russell Blackford does, but I do not think the usage has been primarily driven by identification-squeamishness, though gays and lesbians can certainly use it that way if they want to be careful with the people they are interacting with.

    I would see it more as language trying to "catch up" with changing social mores, with the linguistic "clunkiness" that often entails.


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