Ever since I got married in January, I seem to have developed a bit of a stutter. Every time I have to introduce my wife or make reference to her (which feels like it is at least once every hour), I find myself stammering and tripping over the word “wife.”
I know, right. I can’t believe it either.
Just yesterday, I was on the phone with my doctor making arrangements for my wife to pick up my lab results (we’re trying to make a baby!). My doctor knows I’m gay. He’s treated both my wife and me, and as far as I can tell, he could not care less that we are married ladies. But still, when I asked him if he would release my test results to someone else, a now familiar wave of anxiety came over me. “Who would you like to authorize to pick up the envelope?” he asked. I said my wife’s name, and then my new stutter emerged. “She’s my um, ah, well – my partner.”
Ugh. I did it again! What is my problem? Why can’t I just say “wife” proudly and audibly like a self-respecting married lesbian?
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Over the last few months, I’ve had many similar awkward exchanges. I had to call my insurance agent to add our wedding rings to our policy. Although, I’ve previously clearly established with this woman that I am gay and married (duh, that was the very reason I was calling), when the time came, I still choked and said in a cracking voice, “I also need to add um, uh, my um partner’s ring to the policy.”
Then there was the time I was walking my adorable dog in my very gay Chicago neighborhood and some random lady stopped to ask me one million questions about the dog. He has that effect on people because he is ridiculously cute. Random lady asked how old my dog is. I could have just said, “He’s 13. Have a nice day!” Instead, I started rambling about how my partner (!?!?) adopted him before we met, and how you can’t really be sure how old a dog is when you adopt it, and he was supposedly three when she adopted him, so I guess now he’s about 13.
That one really made me mad at myself. I took what could have been a pleasant and straightforward conversation and turned it into an uncomfortable exchange that left me feeling bad about myself and this poor lady probably wondering what the heck is wrong with the weirdo with the cute dog.
I walked home angrily. My head was spinning. Why did I keep doing this? What was my hang up with admitting I have a wife? Was previously latent internalized homophobia just now awakening within me?
I mean, I’ve been out and very open about it for a good 15 years. I’ve rarely felt the need to hide who I am and have never pretended a romantic relationship was something less. And, not for nothing, but I really, really wanted to get married. So, why on earth would I not embrace every opportunity to publicly declare that I finally got what I always wanted – a wife.
After the dog walk incident, I had to start examining this. I certainly never had a problem with the word “girlfriend.” That rolled off my tongue for years. In fairness, referring to someone as your girlfriend can be ambiguous. People who don’t want to confront your gayness can just assume you’re referring to a platonic friend. But, I was always quick to clarify that my girlfriends were, in fact, romantic and sexual partners.
When I got engaged, I had zero trouble with the word “fiancée.” I said it every chance I could get. Of course, that’s a gender-neutral word, and I look pretty straight (whatever that means), so most of the time when I would mention my fiancée, the stranger I was talking to would proceed to say something like “What does he do?” My response was always, “It’s she, actually. I’m marrying a woman.” Then I’d go on to explain what she does for a living like a normal person having an ordinary conversation.
Was I more comfortable with the word fiancée because I could put the burden of making a mistake on the other person? Was it because it gave me a moment to collect myself before I “came out” once again? If that were the case, you’d think having a more succinct way to say I’m gay (one word: wife) would make it easier to come out over and over again.
Maybe this is some deeply buried internalized homophobia sneaking up on me. It occurred to me that one reason I might feel uncomfortable claiming the word wife is because technically I don’t have one. Same-sex marriage isn’t legal where I live in Illinois, so I have a second-class civil union. Maybe that is part of my problem, but I am not the type of girl who takes relegation to second-class citizenship sitting down. So, it would be very against my nature to eschew the word “wife” just because the law was telling me I couldn’t have one.
Then it hit me. The reason I feel so awkward calling Shira my wife is because that weird word hardly describes what she is to me. For me, “wife” is a loaded word with a lot of negative connotations. In my overactive feminist mind, a wife is someone who quits her job and changes her last name. A wife is a sweet, gentle creature to be protected and possessed. Wives wear aprons and roast chickens and defer to men. I always wanted to get married, and I’ve been dreaming of my wedding for years. But I never wanted to be a wife.
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And it certainly never occurred to me that I would have a wife of my own. I’m attracted to strong and dynamic women who tend to be more butch. So, of course, that is the kind of woman I married. Shira knows how to fix stuff around the house. She always carries the heavy stuff. She owns her own company. She wore a tuxedo to our wedding. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a woman – and that is what I want her to be. But, she certainly doesn’t embody the stereotypical characteristics I associate with a wife.
And if I’m honest with myself, neither do I. Sure, I have long hair and I like to wear dresses. I plan to give birth to our children. I also have a pretty awesome collection of vintage aprons, and while I’ve never roasted a chicken (my wife takes care of that), I do cook a mean steak. So, I guess on the surface, I look like a wife. But the title feels inauthentic to me. It feels like an oppressive relic passed down to me from a patriarchal society I dropped out of a long time ago.
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After carrying around my shame over my discomfort with the word wife for a while, I finally decided to tell Shira about it. She doesn’t really share my view, but she gets it. We talked about some alternatives that might more accurately describe what we are to each other. She suggested I call her my lady husband. Cute, but I can’t say it without laughing.
One day she sent me this text: “Are u sure you can’t get your lezband?” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I immediately assumed she must be cheating on me and that coded text was meant for her mistress. I later learned that “lezband” was another alternative title she had come up with for herself. Her text was asking me (her dutiful wife) to pick her up from the gym. I appreciate her creativity and love that she is so committed to helping me find a word that feels more authentic. But, if I couldn’t even deduce what a “lezband” was, I’m pretty sure it would not translate in casual conversation.
There’s always partner, but I’ve never loved that word either. It feels so unromantic and, frankly, kind of dated. In my mind, calling someone your partner implies that you are in a committed relationship, but that it is not a marriage. It’s from the days when marriage was simply not an option for same-sex couples. And I am not about to start going around dismissing the fact that I am married.
The fact of the matter is that there really is only one word that describes a woman to whom you are married. It’s wife. And for now, I guess I’m stuck with it. It feels uncomfortable, like a shoe that is a size too small, like it was made for someone else and now I have to wear it because it’s the only option.
I’m sad to say that I haven’t figured this out yet. I hesitated to write about this topic because I don’t have an answer. But, I figure I’m probably not the only married lesbian who feels conflicted about having – and being – a wife. So, I decided I might as well put it out there, and I hope to hear your thoughts on the matter.
What do you call the woman you’re married to? Does the word “wife” feel right to you?