by Ashley Austrew
Boyfriend or girlfriend. Husband or wife. Significant other. Bae. There are a lot of different words one could use to describe the person with whom they’re in a romantic relationship. But, the one word that is most quickly redefining the way we talk about relationships is partner.
Is First Partner the future?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who is married to California’s newest governor, Gavin Newsom, recently made headlines when she announced that, rather than being referred to as “First Lady,” she’d like to be called “First Partner.” Her reasoning is simple.
In an interview with the Daily Democrat in August 2018, before her husband was elected, Newsom mused that if her husband won the election, she might like to be called “First Partner” because it would “allow women to be seen as more than a stereotypical lady,” and it would also work for spouses of future governors who aren’t straight men.
Being First Partner is about inclusion, breaking down stereotypes, and valuing the partnerships that allow any of us to succeed.
Grateful for this opportunity to continue advocating for a more equitable future – now let’s get to work! https://t.co/sXwfev7BFy
— Jennifer Siebel Newsom (@JenSiebelNewsom) January 12, 2019
A little history …
Partner has traditionally been used by same same sex couples, particularly throughout the many decades during which these couples were not legally allowed to get married in the US. It’s difficult to pinpoint when the word first started gaining popularity in the LGBTQ community, but in recent years it has become more common among cisgender straight couples as well—though not everyone is on board with that change.
The pros and cons of partner
For some, the word partner is seen as secondary to husband or wife and as slightly too transactional to adequately describe a meaningful relationship. While it can and does connote a romantic partnership, the world partner also means “a person who shares or is associated with another in some action or endeavor; sharer; associate.”
For others, the word partner is viewed as something even deeper than simply being a “husband” or a “wife.” Partnership implies “a supportive connection built on trust, admiration, and mutual respect.” Some see partner as the best way to describe a serious, longterm relationship in a way that does not call to mind traditional gender roles. Others prefer partner, particularly during interactions with people they don’t know well, because it is inclusive language that avoids the assumption of heterosexuality. It also allows people the option of not revealing their partner’s gender or their own sexual orientations in instances in which they don’t want to share that information.
So, is it time for all couples to start using partner?
Well, it’s not that simple.
There are some who feel that straight people using the word partner are appropriating a term that holds real significance in the LGBTQ community. In a piece for Broadly, writer Coco Romack interviewed several people who said that straight people using the word partner is problematic. One, Sarah Courville, a queer student based in Berlin, told Romack that she has been ridiculed in the past for referring to her significant other as her “partner,” and she feels that it’s not okay for straight people to co-opt a word that people in the LGBTQ community “have been penalized for using in the past.”
Not everyone shares those feelings, of course, but the word partner holds different significance for different people, and it should be used with sensitivity.
Are there other options?
For those who identify as straight and are married, a better word to use might be spouse. The word spouse refers to “either person in a marriage,” so it offers the same neutrality that many people are seeking when they use the word partner.
Of course, the word spouse doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. For those who find it awkward, there are other options, like companion, significant other, or SO, though those are certainly less popular terms to use.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom may be right in eschewing her First Lady title, but the move certainly highlights a need for more inclusive, gender neutral ways to describe relationships that don’t strip important words like partner of their historical context.
Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.
For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?”