Is 'husbands' the right label for gay married men?
My longtime partner and I are getting married soon, and a straight friend asked if we'd start calling one another "husbands." We are of the generation that is comfortable with "partner" but finds "husband" a bit jarring (we also live in Houston, a pretty conservative place, where it's even more jarring). We've talked about it, but we haven't come up with a good alternative. Since your last column on this topic was written before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land, I'm wondering what your thoughts are now. — Richard Elbein, Houston
Congratulations to you and your fiance (and yes, that's the correct term for the man you're about to marry), and I hope you'll have a Texas-size wedding. You'll be joining 96,000 same-sex couples who have married since the Supreme Court ruling, according to a new Gallup poll. Still, Houston's overwhelming repeal this month of its equal rights ordinance, which included sexual orientation and gender identity protections, casts yet another ugly shadow on the Lone Star state.
While it's up to you to decide whether to refer to yourselves as significant others, spouses, lovers, partners or husbands, I'm urging "husbands." I say this for a number of reasons — the overriding one being the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in June that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. You are entitled to claim your beau as your husband.
"For many same-sex couples, the use of the terms 'husband' and 'wife' are powerful reminders to others that their marriage is fully equal in every way," Marc Solomon, author of "Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits and Won," also told me.
I often crowdsource questions via Facebook, and I was surprised by the volume and emotion of the responses to this one. While not a scientific poll, 90 percent of the nearly 200 commenters said they use "husbands" or "wives" for their same-sex spouse. This is a seismic shift from two years ago, when a pre-Obergefell survey conducted by Community Marketing and Insights concluded that the majority of same-sex couples preferred "partner" or "spouse" to "husband" or "wife."
"I refuse to bow to those who are uncomfortable with the reality of my marriage," posted Hannah Meier, who always uses "wife" to refer to the woman she married. "To do anything else would be disrespectful to . . . the commitment we made to one another."
Andrew Velthaus wrote: "I use the term 'usband' to all the people I know and also in the contexts where I think they can handle it. So that is 90 percent of the time."
Does geography play a part in the language couples choose? Surprisingly, not so much. I heard from gays in big cities as well as those in Southern and more rural states, most of whom claimed the "husbands" and "wives" monikers. A vocal minority said they preferred to use "partners," regardless of where they live.
Still, some find themselves confronting their internalized homophobia when choosing a moniker. One gay man explained that he had to overcome his "shame-based" reaction to using "husband," while another explained he chose to use "spouse" or "partner" to obfuscate their same-sex relationship in a professional setting.
But it's in exactly those instances — like when I was bellied up to the "Brokeback Mountain" bar in Wyoming and told a stranger that I had a "partner" because I felt unsafe — that I think the word most needs to be heard. Simon Sheppard, a longtime gay rights activist, reminded me that it "sounds perilously close to justification for the closet" by not presenting as a couple. He sarcastically added this solution: "Maybe a sliding scale? 'usband' in San Francisco, 'partner' in Cincinnati and 'friend' in rural Georgia? If queers hadn't taken risks, a lot of risks, we wouldn't be having this discussion today."
There is also a generational divide on the question. Wedding planner Bernadette Smith noted, "Younger same-sex couples more commonly follow wedding traditions and use the terms 'usband' and 'wife' to describe their partner."
For those of a certain age, the language of marriage also carries other baggage with it. "The term 'wife' is very freighted," said Kim Mills, 62, "especially for those of us who lived through the modern women's liberation movement. It's just way too hetero."
But I think Mark S. King said it best: "I used to cringe when my new husband would mention his 'husband' to strangers or salespeople. I'm the lifelong gay activist, and he's the one from a small Alabama town! I've actually followed his lead and say, 'Yes, Mr. Deliveryman, my husband should be here at that time,' or 'I'll have the steak and my husband will have the chicken.' I adore calling him that almost as much as I love him for starting it."
Give "husband and husband" a try. That's what you will be, and it needs to be said and heard — as much in Houston as anywhere right now.
Last, a word of advice to your friends, family members and co-workers: They should refer to you as husbands, just as they would for any married couple, unless told otherwise.
Originally published in The Washington Post