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Does it matter that straight couples keep using the label 'partners' or should it belong to US?

Does it matter that straight couples keep using the label 'partners' or should it belong to US?

two couples sitting together

And what ever happened to calling someone your ‘lover’? Is that still a thing?

Is calling someone your “partner” still queer coded? Or has it been fully co-opted by the straights? More importantly, does that even matter?

A recent Thread reignited the debate about whether or not that term belongs to us anymore. As the use of the word “partner” has gained more and more mainstream traction over the years, the LGBTQ+ population has failed to reach consensus on whether or not this is helpful or harmful. This argument has been hashed out for years, but I still think it’s interesting to delve into why we as a community go through the constant back and forth even if there will never be one certain resolution.

I began thinking of this again while going through the aforementioned Thread that begins “Shout out to the straight people using and trying to normalize the word ‘partner.’” In the replies there are many people, queer and straight alike, chiming in with similar praise. LGBTQ+ people who have voiced their support have noted that the more people who use the word “partner” the safer it is for everyone. When “partner” exclusively denotes gayness, referring to one’s companion as a partner is to out oneself in every situation in which you do so. This is still, and arguably increasingly so in many areas, a time that is not always easy to be openly queer.

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There are also straight people who choose the word partner not only out of allyship, but because it’is the most fitting for their situation. Adults in long term partnerships with someone who is not their legal wedded spouse- people who share children, finances, calendars, futures, lives together- have spoken about feeling juvenile referring to their beloved as their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” instead of “partner.” There are also those who have chosen to tie their lives to nonromantic mates with just as much commitment involved in any romantic or sexual relationship who choose to validate that partnership as just as legitimate as any other through the use of the word “partner.”

However, there are still LGBTQ+ people upset that this no longer helps one easily identify another queer person. As a queer person in the intermountain west, the term “partner” has never been personally helpful in identifying gay vs. straight couples. “Partner” is just as likely to identify someone to me as a cowboy as it is to identify someone to me as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. But I see why some are upset, and it is probably a much more useful litmus test for queerness in places where people don’t have to ask themselves, “Is she a lesbian or just from Wyoming?” on the regular. I believe it to be true that there are as many ways to be a queer person as there are queer people, and that inner community gaydar is becoming a bit of a lost art. There are a lot of ways to drop subtle hints to others, to glance and say, “I am, are you?” and I don’t think use of the word “partner” should be the only way for someone to find other queer people. I think as the tides turn to more people of all sorts using partner, we all might just need to expand our repertoire a bit.

queer couple


I adore queer people, queer culture, queer fashion, queer history, and queer language. I understand why hearing someone refer to their significant other as “partner” feels like a “Ring of Keys” moment, and how heartbreaking it is to find out this person is straight. I’m thinking specifically in this instance about the sociology professor (whom I may have been a little enamored with) who taught my Intro to Gender and Sexuality course and mentioned her “partner” often. She was straight, and not from Wyoming, but Montana. This has always just felt like a nonissue to me, or more truthfully an issue for queer people with more time on their hands. Not to sound dismissive or trite, because I do not want to see all of queer culture assimilated into or normalized, I just feel like this discussion often misses the point.

As someone in a polyamorous relationship, I opt for “partner” when it’s convenient, and anything else based solely on how funny it is to me at the time. I think “long term roommate of a nondescript nature” still has a certain panache to it that “partner” never will, and if any straight person feels like using it, have fun. What we miss in this debate, and in many like it, is remembering how deeply contextual so many little decisions like these are. Use of “partner” to describe one of my partners or the other is so very situational, and not always something I could articulate well in my community or outside of it. I don’t know what it does to further us as a community to make straight people justify themselves in the same way.

Straight couple


When we debate who gets to use the word “partner” I think not about whether the people saying it are gay or straight, but whether or not they believe in the use of “partner” not just linguistically and socially but politically. When we get caught going back and forth about who gets to call whom “partner” and when and why and with who’s permission, I feel we’ve forgotten to ask if this does anything to further what we consider a partner to mean and to be. For straight people who have “partners” I don’t want that to be the end of their allyship either! I want them to be asking the same questions!

I want a world where more people call people their partners because I want more people in partnership with each other. I want more protections for people in platonic life partnerships, for blended families, for polyamorous partnerships. In a triad relationship, we’ve had to have a lot of hard conversations surrounding things like healthcare, housing, higher education, and other institutions that still require marriage as proof of legitimacy for access, with the knowledge that one of us will always be left behind. This is all to say that I don’t care who calls someone their partner- gay or straight, platonic or romantic, cowboy or city folk- I would just like to work towards a world where these partnerships are treated with equal respect.

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Rowan Ashley Smith