You wouldn’t know this if you met me, but I am in a Committed, Long-Term Relationship. Yes, folks, despite my binge-drinkin’, hard-partyin’, wayward ways, I am happily settled in what can only be described as domesticity personified.
We met on Halloween in 2001, and it was love at first drunken sight. I wooed her with my bottle of vanilla vodka cleverly disguised as a paper bag, she wooed me with her jaunty gangster do-rag and ability to put cigarettes out on her tongue. In the years to follow, we bonded over copious quantities of cheap malt liquor, gave each other ill-advised and booze-fueled haircuts, and were responsible for shutting down several parties along the I-5 corridor. Clearly, it was love.
Fast-forward about 10 years and we have matching bedside furnishings, spend weekends refinishing dining sets, and own a modest home together. She gardens, I bake. I drink, she drives. I write, she gets paid. She does my taxes, I update her Facebook status. We’re a team. We’re settled. We have cats. It’s all very cozy and suburban, without the actual suburbs.
I cannot. Will not. Bring myself to call her my “partner.”
A decade of loving, fighting, fucking and living together, and for some reason neither one of us can wrap our tongues around those two syllables. When we go out together and meet new people, I often find myself saying, simply, “And this is Lisa. We live together.” Or, “That girl over there? Yeah, she’s my special ladyfriend.” When that nets me weird looks, I explain further by elongating the vowels a la Jeff Bridges as The Dude: “You know, my special laaaaaaaaadyfriend.” Well that settles that.
On one of our more recent outings, a new friend responded, “Oh. You mean she’s your partner?”
“No,” I responded. “She’s my special ladyfriend.”
“Well, yeah, but no. She’s my special laaaaaaaaadyfriend!”
Don’t these people get it?!? Partners are … middle-aged. Second-wave feminist dykes who wear tool belts and mom jeans and fanny packs and have permed mullets and make their own flavorless soymilk from scratch. We, we are not those lesbians. No, no, freewheeling, fancy- and label-free. We are most definitely not partners.
We do not build sweat lodge slash yoga studio slash art galleries in the New Mexico dessert. We do not spend our days ambling around airy lofts in paint-splattered coveralls giving each other quick pecks on the cheek before rushing off to the rainbow babies playgroup organized by the local Montessori school.
And yet. Our relationship lacks a label. And without a label, people outside our relationship are apt to get confused, with sometimes amusing, sometimes awkward, results. Explanations elude us during social gatherings and at work. People think we’re single (we’re not). People think we’re swingers (we’re not). People think our straight roommate (“she lives with us, too”) is romantically entangled in our crazy lezzie web (she isn’t).
I’ve played with other terms for us. “Girlfriend” just doesn’t do her justice. We’re not 15. We’re not “girlfriends.” “Wife” is creepy and inaccurate, and “spouse” is just ridiculous. “Bedfellow” has potential, but wouldn’t work in mixed company. “Wifey” makes me vomit. “Significant other” is so 90s. So tongue-in-cheek. “Partner,” despite its dowdy implications, remains closest to the mark.
We do in fact make budget spreadsheets and weekly meal plans together. If that’s not partnership, I don’t know what is. But “partner” is so… clinical. So 70s. So PC-hetero. So college professor, so tweed jacket and leather elbow pad.
Urban dictionary offers this unhelpful guidance on the word, as used by people in heterosexual relationships:
• 'Partners' live in "spaces", not apartments, homes, houses, pads or places.
•'Partners' sleep and fuck on futons or dirty mattresses on the floor, as opposed to beds.
• 'Partners' generally subsist on 'ethical' or sustainable diets of organic vegetables, free-range meat and fair-trade coffee.
And therein lies another problem with the word “partner.” It’s been adopted by the straights. In between thrift-store shopping, baby-wearing, and trips to the farmer’s market, heteros have co-opted the choicer elements of queer culture. This includes short haircuts, practical shoes, tight pants, flannel shirts and using the word "partner" to describe their heterosexually privileged, state- and church-sanctioned relationships. They get all the fun of being alterna with none of the consequences.
Not that I’m bitter about it. Ahem.
For now, we mostly get away with skirting the issue of labels. We’re still young enough that assumptions of singlehood don’t lead to automatic pity, and “alternative arrangements” don’t raise eyebrows. As we get older and more entrenched in our respective careers, which come with progressively more conservative dress codes and peer groups that unilaterally display giant diamond wedding-themed jewelry, things are bound to get more awkward.
We may have to start using the word “partner.” But until then, I’d like you to meet my special laaaaaaaadyfriend. We live together.