My lady and I are in a civil union, but we’re not sure what to call each other. We used to call each other “girlfriend” before the civil union. I prefer the term partner, but she likes to call me her wife. Neither of us are really into the term the other person uses. What’s a committed lesbian to do?
Anna says: That’s an excellent query (queery?). When someone gets married, you call that person a “husband/wife” or “spouse.” When someone gets a domestic partnership, you call them a “domestic partner.” But civil unions don’t have a naming convention. It doesn’t even have a word like “married” —how do we even describe the act? “We got unionized!” “We civilly united!”
The good news is that since there’s no established protocol, you and your Important Person (now I don’t know what to call her) get to make it up as you go along. If you disagree about partner vs wife, then you could come up with something different altogether (or, god forbid, another acronym—Woman In Felicitous Economy?). Here’s a shortlist of potential terms, of which about half are terrible—girlfriend with benefits (the legal kind), civilian, companion, life partner, mate, gayte, consort, significant other, pardner (for my cowgirl readers), and better half. Synonyms and word origins for “wife” yielded some pretty amusing results: Biddy, little woman, household mistress, helpmeet, missus, ball and chain, grande dame, and my favorite, tradeswoman of humble rank, which is how I want to be introduced at parties from henceforth.
There is a reason for label conformity, however, and that reason is: so you don’t seem crazy. If I started referring to my girlfriend as hufflepuff or dingaroo or jiggety jigsaw, it would make me happy, but no one else would know what the hell I was talking about.
Since a civil union is a legalized partnership similar to marriage, I would probably defer to “wife” in legal or medical situations, if you or she were in the hospital, for instance. But in cocktail conversations, there’s no need to get super technical about introductions. If you can’t come to a compromise, you might simply have to agree to disagree. It’s possible one or both of your feelings will change about the words you dislike. I hated “partner” for a long time—it seemed so sterile—but now I use it when I want my relationship to feel more established and adult-like, especially since straight people have partially co-opted “girlfriend” to mean platonic friend.
AfterEllen readers, what say you? What would you call a civil union partnership? Should we come up with a new word?