As an awkward intern in 2015, I took any chance I could to get close to my editor, a brilliant woman I desperately wanted to become my mentor. So when we happened to be leaving the office at the same time one night, I reveled in the chance to chat with her during a three-block walk to Grand Central Station.
“Where are you going for the holidays?” I asked, grasping at straws to start a conversation.
“I always spend them in Pennsylvania with my mom and her partner,” she said.
I nearly gasped. This is my way in, I thought. Her mom is gay, just like me. But my happy bubble burst a few seconds later when a sentence about her mom’s partner included the word “he.”
On top of my disappointment was a heavy helping of confusion. I’d never heard a straight person use “partner” to describe their significant other before. This was months before marriage equality passed nationwide in the U.S., and the only people I knew who called their S.O.s their “partners” were queer people (now, after having gained a few more years of wisdom, I realize her mom could have been bisexual, even if she was with a man at the time).
Over the next few years, I started hearing straight people say “my partner” more and more frequently. And as conversations about appropriation also grew more frequent, I started to wonder, Does this count as appropriation?
Technically, for something to be cultural appropriation one cultural group has to take over something that “belongs” to another (i.e., when Zac Efron posted his “just for fun” dreadlocks on Instagram in 2018, co-opting a hairstyle with roots in black culture).
“I don’t want to police what people call their S.O.s, because it’s really personal, but I also wish gays could have one f**cking word.”
Although many people see “partner” as a word tied to queer history, whether or not the word belongs to LGBTQ+ people isn’t black and white. “Partner” could be a shortening of “life partner” or “domestic partner,” both designations that many queer, especially same-sex, couples had to use before states started passing marriage equality. But LGBTQ+ people weren’t the only ones who formed domestic partnerships.
In 1984, Berkeley, California passed the country’s first law allowing couples, gay or straight, to apply for domestic partnership. San Francisco passed a similar legal ordinance in 1989. And in 1993, New York followed suit. Eventually, all 50 states allowed for couples comprising any two genders (but still only monogamous couples) to form domestic partnerships or civil unions. These laws granted same-sex or unmarried straight couples some of the benefits granted to married couples, such as the right to visit each other at hospitals (which became direly important for same-sex couples during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s). Still, same-sex couples formed the majority of domestic partnerships by nature of being unable to get married. In California in 2011, 4,592 couples registered as domestic partners, 3,688 of whom were same-sex couples. That’s 80%.
So it’s not that shocking that 20 or more years of being forced to settle for partnerships instead of marriages put a heavily queer connotation on the word “partner.” Yet, with almost five years since marriage equality passed nationwide, “partner” seems to be losing some of its queer meaning. The upsurge in straight people using the word seems to partially align with younger generations delaying marriage until their late 20s and 30s.
When I asked 25 people — straight, lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, queer, monogamous, and polyamorous — how they feel about “partner,” most of the straight people told me that “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” felt too juvenile to describe their relationships. Some have been with their S.O.s for five or more years and feel that “partner” better describes the level of love and commitment they have for each other. “‘Partner’ helps me signify that he’s not just some person I’m dating, he’s my family,” says Elizabeth*, a 26-year-old straight woman who is in a six-year relationship. Maria, a 30-year-old straight woman, has only been with her S.O. for about a year, but she feels a little ridiculous calling him her “boyfriend” when she’s 30 and he’s 32.
“Gendered language hurts queer people (and, frankly, all people) — if straight people start moving slowly away from it, it might help society at large adapt to more inclusive language.”
And yet others only use “partner” when the situation seems to require a more grown-up word. Suz, 28, a straight woman, called her boyfriend her “partner” when the two were recently house-hunting together, and Shana, a 28-year-old straight medical student, called her boyfriend her “partner” when it felt necessary to bring him up during interviews at hospitals she was considering for her residency.
Yet, many of the LGBTQ+ people I spoke to shared a similar sense of disappointment as I felt with my editor when someone who called their S.O. “partner” turned out to be straight. “I don’t want to police what people call their S.O.s, because it’s really personal, but I also wish gays could have one f**cking word,” says Hannah, a 26-year-old lesbian. Hannah is an editor who works on a popular finance column and always gets excited when someone who writes in says “my partner,” but is often disappointed. “I’m like finally a gay! And then it’s never a gay person,” she says.
Her reaction brings up another important point in the debate: You can’t tell a person’s sexual orientation based solely on the gender of their S.O. “The whole question [of whether or not straight people can say ‘partner’] feels biphobic,” says Meredith, a 27-year-old bisexual woman. If we’re asking who is or isn’t allowed to use “partner” as a term, it can feel to bi+ people in relationships that look heterosexual from the outside that they’re excluded, too. Still, other bi+ people I spoke to like that “partner” feels like a word that belongs to queer communities, because it helps them signify their queerness even if their relationships don’t seem queer on the surface.
By the time I finished reporting this story, only one thing was clear to me: People have a lot of opinions about who can or cannot say “my partner.” And I can see a valid argument for almost all of those opinions. But, ultimately, the answer that sticks out to me is one in which we honor the queer roots from which “partner” came — recognizing that the word was born out of a necessity to designate same-sex relationships differently from heterosexual ones — but move forward into a time when “partner” is a word for everyone.
“Non-queer people are incorporating more aspects of queer culture in their everyday lives. It’s a meshing of culture and subculture where boundaries are beginning to be grayed or erased,” says Rebecca, a 23-year-old queer woman. Her friend Radhika, a 23-year-old lesbian, agrees. “I think it can be mildly eye-roll-inducing [when straight people use ‘partner’] but ultimately harmless, maybe even positive. Gendered language hurts queer people (and, frankly, all people) — if straight people start moving slowly away from it, it might help society at large adapt to more inclusive language,” she says.
After all, as many people, both straight and queer, pointed out to me, “partner” reminds people that relationships are about supporting one another and working together. And that’s important for everyone to keep in mind.
*Name has been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.