Partner, Girlfriend, Other Half or maybe Lady Lover?

Partner is a funny term. It doesn’t have the warmth of wife, or husband, and it hasn’t the upbeat sound of boyfriend or girlfriend. But it can be useful. Or certainly, my partner and I believe so. What do you call that special someone who is one step beyond boy/girlfriend, but not yet fiancé(e)? To me, partner signifies respect, a mutual affinity. It is of course also, non-gender specific.

And therein both a problem and an advantage may lie. Sadly, prejudice still lingers, and homophobia makes the odd appearance. So, in those occasions of the leering gent on the bus, or the rough-tongued being in the pub, the word ‘partner’ can help to evade a sticky situation or two. It can, however, also highlight prejudice where you didn’t expect women-holding-handsto find it. This is something my partner and I have been discovering.

Take, for example, my phoning up the Metro office to arrange collection of my purse (embarrassing to have lost it, but this story serves a greater purpose). As I work outside the city I wanted my partner to collect it for me. And so, on the phone, I enquired:

“Could my partner please collect it for me?”

“He can, if he brings your ID”, the reply came.

Hmm. Somewhat thrown off by the comment I forgot to ask what counted as ID (given mine was in the lost purse). And so, my partner made a phonecall to ask…

“I’m calling because my partner lost her purse, what ID of hers do I need to bring as hers is in her purse?”

“Just bring one of your friend’s bills”.

And on collection?

“I’m here to collect my partner, Amy’s purse”.

“Here’s your friend’s purse”.

All this while my partner stood by an anti-homophobia poster in the Metro station.

This isn’t the sole example, a restaurant changed ‘partner’ to ‘husband’ when we made a birthday booking and needed to confirm there would be a vegan option for me. I imagine they were somewhat surprised to see the very female vegan arrive.

I’ve had this in jobs, in doctors’ appointments, in general social situations. The assumption is always that the partner is male; that is if you aren’t swathed in rainbows – though I think in the case of the Metro, even that wouldn’t have worked. And upon the grand reveal that said partner is same sex? Gasps, supposed compliments of ‘you would never guess’. As though I am hiding scales beneath my clothes. We’re sneaky that way, we committed gays.

I suppose this somewhat rambling prologue is driving towards the question of – Should we embrace or shun the ambiguous phrase ‘partner’? Or, is it not us that should change our terminology, but the eponymous ‘them’ that should change their attitude? I don’t want to return to ‘girlfriend’. I’m not 15, we’re not ‘dating’. Partner sits very comfortably. ‘Other half’ is ridiculous, I was perfectly whole before she arrived. ‘Lady friend’ perhaps would get the point across. But I shouldn’t have to carefully construct my sentences to avoid offending some, and to ensure comprehension of my lesbian-dom to others. Why can’t someone respond to the gender neutral term with the same, and allow the gender to reveal itself over time. Or, not.

Do you have a term you prefer to use? Does what you say depend on the situation? Do you think it even matters? I would certainly like to know. Otherwise I’m just typing into the ether.

This piece was written by Amy Ekins, writer of fiction and non-fiction alike. She is training as a Project Manager for a publishing company, a graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing, and can be found at www.twitter.com/amyeek – She likes being tweeted.

10 comments

  1. When i am comfortable i always say girlfriend. However, often when i am with strangers i say partner, it is difficult coming out 60 times a day, well it is for me anyway. I think that is the problem.
    Interested to hear how other people feel about coming out to every Tom, Dick and Harry??

  2. Jamie
    Author

    It’s a really interesting topi and I can’t easily figure out my stance.

    I’m completely comfortable in telling people I’m gay but sometimes is it really necessary? I’ve definitely just let it slide when random people refer to my non-existant girlfriend. Not due to any embarassement more due to a lack of requirement to do so.

    I personally dislike the word ‘partner’ I’m not sure why, I think it sounds like a legal term and not one of endearment. That being said there isn’t really a better alternative apart from the skin-crawingly repellent ‘life-partner’, so until someone comes up with a new term I guess ‘partner’ will just have to do.

  3. Tony

    I’m quite surprised to hear Amy has a dislike for using the term ‘girlfriend’. This would never have occurred to me – as someone who’s been single for quite some time, I’d be very happy to be able to say such a person exists in my life at the moment.

    As a ‘straight’ man, I also view the term ‘girlfriend’ as being non-ambiguous when used in introductions by the opposite sex, regardless of age or duration of the relationship. So if one girl introduces another girl to me as her girlfriend, it’s pretty definite, and leaves very little room for misunderstanding – at least in MY mind.

    On the other hand, I also don’t use it to introduce those friends of mine who happen to be female. This is simply because I am a single man, and prefer to avoid having to explain each and every time ‘no, not-in-that-way’…

    Turning to non-gender specific language, I think the problem with it is that, by its very nature, it can unconsciously force the listener to play ‘guess-the-context’ – and unfortunately telephone conversations only intensify this problem.

    Whilst Amy mentioning her ‘partner’ on the phone doesn’t automatically suggest that her partner is female, it doesn’t specify her partner isn’t male either. So the listener has to make a subconscious choice to interpret the information given to them based on their own life experiences.

    I think it would take a particularly conscientious and attentive listener to tell themselves they aren’t going to make a snap decision about the sex of the ‘partner’. Whether they are liberally-minded (or even ‘try to make the effort’) or not, they are still likely to ‘play the percentages’… whether they meant to or not.

    I think even the most intelligent of people are likely to fall into this trap – Unless, of course, they themselves also have ‘partners’ and first-hand experience of this annoyance.

    In regards to the use of ‘friend’, though, especially face-to-face, that would seem to me to be more of a clumsy and misguided attempt at politeness in the face of an unexpected circumstance (I know, it shouldn’t be) – and I doubt very much the person would even be aware this would cause offense. The response should have (at least) been ‘Here is your partner’s purse’ – but even then, a bit of thought would have had to go into it, and it isn’t as automatic as we would all like it to be in the modern world.

    That’s just my opinion – and unless a term can find prominence in society that all sides of a conversation can clearly understand and feel comfortable with (and without causing offense to any side in the process), I feel such problems aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

    On that note – ‘lady friend’ has always just sounded to me (at best) like a casual acquaintance, which is entirely wrong. And I’ve always thought the term ‘life-partner’ a bit unpleasant as well.

    But girlfriend? I still think that’s appropriate – at least for now…

    • Jamie
      Author

      Great comment Tony thanks a lot! I think you’re right in that the vast majority of people would assume a person’s ‘partner’ was of the opposite sex unless specifically told.

  4. Amy

    I am a straight woman (incidentally, I find myself single at this juncture, ahhh! ;)) who would usually refer to my, erm, partner, as a ‘partner’. I agree though, its a tough one to decipher but its never crossed my mind that someone would assume i’m gay because of the terminology. It wouldnt bother me either way but I suppose because I know I am straight, it wouldnt occur to me that I would need to clarify that. However, I think any term you choose can be personalised; I often, for example, like to call whoever i’m with ‘My Special One’. I dont suppose this would crop up on forms or dinner bookings though!

  5. Cris

    I am a gay man in a gay relationship. I like the term partner where as my partner prefers the term Boyfriend. Either way I think they are both viable as they both fit the situation.

    But speaking on Amy’s problem on the phone, I think this ‘mix-up’ is always going to happen, because if you say your ‘partner’ on the telephone, the person on the other end is always going to have to choose a sex instead of keeping it desexualized.

    We have no terms specific for male only couples and non for female only couples, so perhaps it’s about time someone invents some that everyone is happy enough to use.

  6. Amy

    Hi Cris – a while since you wrote your comment but very interesting idea there and I am completely in agreement that there should be some new terms out there. Suggestions anyone?

  7. Interesting article, and something I completely understand. When I started university, I had the awkward moment of ‘So, do you have a girlfriend?’…’No, but I do have a boyfriend though..” Although I am proud of my ‘man-friend’ as he has been called before, I sometimes feel concious that people think I’m shoving my sexuality down their throat..also, a lot of people just don’t want to offend you, so they shy away from coming right out and referring to your partner as your boyfriend, even though that’s what he is…interesting though that the metro didn’t just say ‘yes, your partner can come and collect it’ or whatever.

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