When a Wife Just Isn’t a Wife

I will happily celebrate my seventh wedding anniversary next summer. My problem as a married lesbian is the lack of a good all-occasion word to refer to my beloved.

I struggle with the best term to call the person-for-whom-I-live-and-breathe-and-share-my-life-love-joys-sorrows-triumphs-mistakes-hopes-dreams-health care proxy-and-retirement savings. Is she my wife? That term works with an ironic twist among close friends. My wife will pour me that glass of Pinot Noir. Otherwise, the word wife just does not naturally flow from brain to tongue.

Of course, my familiarity with the dictionary tells me that a wife is a married woman. But the historical baggage of my foremothers who were forced into marriage for reasons of political alliance, inheritance, servitude, and depth of dowry also permeates my psyche.
My own mother gave up a successful career in 1958 to become….a wife. She was a darn good one, too. She was lovely and loyal, determined, and divine. Dinner was always on the table at 6, cookies were hot out of the oven, and her devotion to home and hearth is eternal.

And my gal? She can pick up a snake in the woods, use power tools like a pro, raise a bumper crop of arugula, embroider a placemat, and whip up a soufflé in a jiffy. She’s just not a wife.

Partner? That’s a fine choice. It worked before we were married but ambiguities abound. Man or woman? Business partner? Law partner? Tennis partner? Clarity depends on context and there is plenty of room for confusion.Spouse? That works for an equity line or a blood transfusion, but just seems too legalistic for daily use. Lover? Not in front of mom. Friend? Cop out. Significant other? Spare me.

My love and I were together 11 years before we could legally wed, and our relationship progressed from a crackling attraction to a few blissful years of adventurous travel and eating at trendy restaurants. We went to graduate school, established careers, and made the decision to adopted two beautiful children and sign on for a hefty mortgage. Marriage protected us legally and financially.
By marrying, we could also demonstrate to society’s skeptics that my love and I were equally capable as straight couples of changing diapers, mowing the grass, and dashing from the schoolyard to the commuter rail.

So, why can’t she just be my wife? The reality is that feminism has influenced my generation, too young to have really been pioneers, too old to not to have benefitted from the dismantling of the notion that a wife is there to obey her husband.

But, another reality is that, despite progress, gays and lesbians routinely face rejection from family members, discrimination in the workplace, and denunciation from the pulpit. We trust others based on specific situations. Using the terms wife and husband forces us to always be out, vulnerable.

There are occasions such as a fundraiser for a favorite liberal candidate where my wedding ring has an aura of clout. Introductions are seamless, easy. There are other times, though, where I have to make a snap decision about the mindset of a stranger and I don’t ask or tell about my marital status.

A few weeks ago, I bought a car form a dealer on the Lynnway. Ronnie, the salesman, and I had to wait around for the usual approvals and reams of paperwork. During that time, Ronnie showed me pictures of his own lovely wife and daughter. I learned a lot about their trip to Aruba, and how tough it was to pay the college tuition bills.

At noon Ronnie broke his sandwich in half, a fresh mozzarella and prosciutto sub from Bianchi’s in Revere. I told Ronnie about my girls, how they love spaghetti Bolognese. He said, “That’s my favorite, too. Your husband’s a lucky guy.” I produced a fake chuckle. Ronnie was kind, funny. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that it was my wife that was the lucky one. I just can’t use that word. Any gender-neutral alternate would have been all wrong. So, I changed the subject. My language had failed me.

Or was it me that had failed Ronnie?

Would the easy banter between Ronnie and me have evaporated had I mentioned my wife? Would he have been supportive? Did he prescribe to mean spirited talk radio? Given the chance, would he vote to take away my right to marry? I’ll never know. I hedged.
After almost seven years of marriage and 18 years together, my commitment to the love of my life is strong. Maybe someday, I will be able to make her my wife.

Julie Whitlow is a professor in the English department at Salem State University where she also co-coordinates the master of arts in teaching English as a second language. Her main research interests are in second language writing and sociolinguistcs. She recently presented a lecture entitled “Social Justice and Language on Same-Sex Marriages” with Patricia Ould where they discussed their research on various terms that married gay men and lesbians use to refer to and introduce each other. They explored the complexities of language use that comes with navigating various social situation, including avoiding reference to their relationships for reasons such as uncertainty, fear, homophobia, or protecting the feelings of others.

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