Recently on a popular television show, two women were shown sitting in a restaurant. A man walks in and greets one, who introduces the other woman as her partner, and then quickly adds, “I mean, business partner.”
This disclaimer has found its way into daily conversation due to a new meaning of the word “partner.” Many battles in favor of gay marriage, and the financial and personal benefits given to married couples, have suffered defeat. In the wake of these defeats, American society has offered as a compromise a distinct way to “embrace” homosexuality while still separating committed gay couples from their heterosexual counterparts: “partners” has become the word of choice. Assigning this term to gay couples inherently reflects the unequal status that homosexual couples face. It is a weak attempt to portray acceptance of diversity, and has backfired by amplifying discrimination against homosexuals.
True, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a partner as “A person linked by marriage to another, a member of a couple who live together or who are habitual companions,” but this modern definition does not suggest this equal commitment. The word has evolved to define a homosexual person who is not quite married to another; hence, not quite equal to a heterosexual married person. And so it has repeatedly been reinforced in American society, as separate is inherently unequal.
Introducing one’s lover as a “partner” implies several things: the couple is dedicated, the couple is not married, and the couple is gay. When someone introduces their “husband” or “wife,” the legitimacy of their relationship is not questioned. This vocabulary is official; marriage, after all, is a respected institution. And what dedicated couple would not want to receive its privileges? In addition to more legitimate terminology, there are hundreds of legal rights granted to married couples, including tax, housing, medical and employment benefits. Merely being “partners” for life does not provide these economic and legal benefits.
In addition, the term “partner” suggests the formality and aloofness of a business relationship and does not acknowledge the emotional bond. The terminology of marriage implies commitment, love and responsibility. It is only fair that gay couples who are equally in love should also access these strong emotional connotations in everyday contexts.
Perhaps one day, when gay couples are recognized with the same terminology and rights as heterosexual couples, the word “partner” will revert to its more conventional connotation. In the meantime, a dancing partner, business partner, or partner in crime will likely not be introduced without clarification, and life partners will continue to struggle to define their status.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.