Queer wives? Really?

DebatesAnalyses

Ardis Cameron March 2020

It is 1975. Political action is in full throttle: civil rights, the women’s movement, gay and lesbian equality, and everyone I know is exhausted. “Women hold up half the sky,” one banner chants but as we stretch our arms to juggle jobs, grad school, relationships, activism, kids, households, we look in vain for those holding up the other half. The super woman is born. “What I need,” my lesbian friend Shelley says “is a wife!”

And now, almost four decades later, we have them. But is that a good thing? 

When my partner and I partnered up almost thirty years ago, introducing ourselves this way politely complicated heteronormative unions. In those early years friends and colleagues smiled, winced, shuffled feet, turned red. My niece congratulated us. My uncle asked what business we were starting up. But the point was made. It was not only that we were queering space for ourselves, we embodied a way to reimagine and rethink marriage: What was marriage for? as E.J. Graff asked, and how can we recreate an institution so freighted with a history of oppression and inequality? As partners, lesbians and gay men staked out a claim for egalitarian coupling emptied of historical hierarchies and the moral certainties of biblical authority. There was an edginess to the term that gave queerness critical power. Whatever people thought about our relationship, they still had to “think” about things. 

We were trouble. Histories were written, marriage was reexamined, laws changed. Then a weird thing happened. 

My straight friends appropriated the term partner to describe a more enlightened heterosexual union while my queer friends adopted wife and husband to announce their marital status. Everyone deployed the terms strategically: the former to flag solidarity and equality, the latter to celebrate hard-fought legal rights. Context is everything.  So why not embrace the term “wife” and “husband?” Why shouldn’t queer women celebrate their wifedom? 

I suppose it depends on whether or not you think language is important. Does it reflect reality or help shape and create it? Historians come down on both sides of this issue, but certainly we can agree that the category “wife” has taken on meaning in and through language. Walk through a colonial graveyard in New England and ponder the workings of language for the women laid to rest. “John Smith his wife” one gravestone reads. “Eban Eaton,” another, then just below Eban’s dates, we find “his relic,” a common and socially descriptive synonym for widow. 

But who were these women? In many cases we will never know. The loss of one’s name, the historian Laurel Ulrich reminds us, was the most “obvious emblem of women’s coverture.” A wife was legally covered by her husband, a social erasure that echoes down to us as heterosexual women alter their names on their wedding day. 

Still, I’m often told, that was then and today queer wives do not change their names. Role playing in queer relationships is also optional and, like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, can undo the clarity of marital relationships. In her famous multiplication of the coupling between geniuses and wives—I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were not real geniuses—(that one), Stein, the Butch, writing as Alice, the Femme, flippantly exposes the nebulous nature of identities created through unions of all kinds even as she positions the butch as the non-wife genius.  Queering identities reconfigures conventional marriage. But does it? 

Over and over gay men and women tell me that they use the terms husband and wife to announce that they are no longer partners but well, husbands and wives. In other words, married. “Once legally wed,” Steven Petrow opines, “whether straight or gay, they have earned the titles husbands and wives.” Yes, earned. So, still a privilege, not a right? Petrow, who writes a column on LGBT etiquette for the Washington Post, councils others who find the new landscape of “gay marriage” tricky to navigate. While he acknowledges that “partner” is still used by some, the thrust of his advice is for the LGBT community to accept conventional marital identities as the “way forward.” After all, everyone knows what it means. 

Really?

Well, good bye queerness, I guess. For if I remember correctly, the struggle for marriage equality was to obtain the same legal rights for same sex couples as straight people, not to celebrate or perpetuate heteronormative conventions of marriage. Why would women, who fought long and hard to erase the binary married/single, now seek to announce their married status? Does simply occupying the position queer wife, open up new possibilities for a more equalitarian definition of marriage—straight or queer—or does it cede that radical potential by embracing inherently unequal terms to define that position? 

Of course, we should be proud to have gained the right to marry. It was an astonishing achievement.  Of course, I’m proud of who I married. Even now, four years after my partner died, I still wear her ring to celebrate that union and the struggle to legalize it. But I am troubled by the erasure of the term partner after marriage and the unexamined appropriation of husband and wife among the LGBTQ community. 

Does the constant reiteration of these terms undo the essentiality of marriage as between a man and woman or shore them up as the norm our own unions violate? Does queer marriage push the envelope of change and social critique or lick it shut as we name ourselves in and through conventional identities as husbands and wives? Why has the mainstream press so rapidly embraced the queering of husband and wife when it took several decades to get Ms. accepted? What kinds of gender politics are at work here? 

The struggle for queer rights has always had ripple effects, opening up heteronormative social life to critique in multiple ways. And that happens through language, and yes through words like “partner.” A small word perhaps, but so was Ms. Language conveys meaning but so too does it change it.  As wives, I think we can still imagine women holding ninety percent of the sky. As partners, not so much.

Publication Date:

19 March 2020

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Ardis Cameron