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Monday, February 23, 2015

Terminology: When a Man Has a “Husband” and a Woman Has a “Wife”

In this new world where gay people are legally married, as David Vargo and I were in 2013, there’s a terminology issue that has its own new battlefield: what is the spouse to be called?  Surely the correct answer is “husband” or “wife,” depending on the gender, but that sounds so historically foreign, often even to gay couples themselves, that it seems awkward.  The problem is that gay marriage is so very new—so startling a change—that it’s difficult for society to catch up with reality.
Some couples avoid the issue by simply using “spouse,” particularly when desiring not to “come out” in situations where it is irrelevant or unwise (talking to one’s homophobic employer, for example).  But most married gay couples do use “husband” or “wife,” with the hope that repeated usage will make it seem ordinary even if sometimes surprising to listeners expecting a different gender reference.

I have a couple of friends who know I’m married to David but who, when referring to him or us do not use marriage terms.  They say things like, “We’d love to meet you and your partner” or “Bring your significant other over for dinner.”  Why do they balk at “husband”?  These good people do not think of themselves as homophobic and are indeed friends of mine, comfortable with the fact that I’m gay.  I’m afraid the answer is, alas, that they are involved in a mild form of homophobia, and if they thought it through they’d realize it.  Failure to call David my “husband” is a tactic reservation of that term for the spouse of a woman, and reflects an underlying belief that David and my marriage is not “real” the way straight marriages are.  I suspect it’s part of an unstated conclusion many straights (and even some gays) have that gay marriages aren’t truly the equivalent of straight marriages and never will be anything other than a tolerated pretense, understandable but wrong.

Particularly in a state like Ohio where gay marriages are not as I write this currently valid (even though the federal government must recognize them and the marriage was legal in New York where it occurred) some people might contends ours is not a marriage in anything other than our dreams.  So far no one has said this to me out loud, but if some bigot were to do so (“You’re not married here in Columbus, Ohio, bub!”) I’d reply, “We will be by July when the Supreme Court speaks.”  [As to that see]

Not long ago David and I were going some place where our marriage might or might not come up and I mentioned to him that if it did I’d refer to him as my “husband.”  He lifted his eyebrows at this.  As a boy David was much bullied in both grade and high school for his supposed gayness, so he pointed out to me that if I did this there would likely be employee jokes and laughter about us after we’d left the scene.  I agreed that was a possibility but then pointed out that we were part of a learning curve for these people.  The first time it’s funny, the second time it’s a case of “hey, we had another guy refer to his ‘husband.’”  The third time there’s a shrug, and thereafter they stop noticing.  Thus it is with all civil rights battles, a lesson I learned in the 80s when we first were carrying signs on the streets of Columbus and being called “fag” was routinely yelled from passing cars; see

Interestingly, companies that deal with huge numbers of customers in telephone conversations are not thrown at all when I say things like “Please add my husband to the account.”  They’ve now heard that sort of statement so often that it’s lost its surprise value, and the company doesn’t want to offend its customers, gay or not.  Progress is being made.  Consider the following pie chart.

In the early 1900s one of the earliest homosexual advocates (and, alas, I can’t remember which one) commented that homosexuals would someday be tolerated the same way frogs, slowing heated up in water, don’t notice the change: “They’ll just have to get used to it.”  When it comes to this gay marriage terminology issue that is exactly what’s happening.  Five years from now no one will give it a thought that men can have “husbands” and women can have “wives.”

Related Posts:

Married at Last! A Gay Lawyer Looks at What the Supreme Court Actually Said About Same-Sex Marriage,” June 30, 2015;
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013,

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Demeaning to Women?


Not in my opinion.  Sure, the bestselling novel and the movie both concern the story of a woman who erotically submits to total domination by a man, and who then experiences some of the possibilities of the BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) world.  But for me to type the words “submits to total domination by a man” is to demonstrate the problem.  It certainly sounds demeaning, and many commentators cannot get beyond that.  For them the issue is over, and the book/movie is to be condemned for that fact alone (and not, for example, its artistic merit or even its portrayal of BDSM, which has been criticized).   I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, but to the extent that the criticism is that women should never be portrayed as submissives in a BDSM relationship, I disagree with that.

When I was writing my most recent novel, “Corbin Milk,” one of the large segments of the plot involved my hero’s need to penetrate the BDSM world and learn its rules, methodology, and theory.  That led to some fascinating research into a subject usually considered taboo.  But I learned that more of the planet’s humans are interested in participating in that experience than is commonly thought (witness the phenomenal success of the book and movie).  My prior post on this subject contains many of the same thoughts as this one; if interested see “Fifty Shade of Leather: Corbin Milk in the BDSM World,” 

When most people bother to think at all about the BDSM lifestyle they picture innocent people being either forced or tricked into horrors they would never voluntarily choose.  There are certainly sick people out there who do commit criminal acts of a sadistic nature, and no one condones that.  But experienced BDSM players adhere to an agreed-upon code about what is allowed and what not, and their overriding motto is “safe, sane, consensual. Encounters in this world typically start with a negotiation between the parties (as is true of “Fifty Shades”) on the rules of play and the firm understanding that either party is free to end the game at any point.  Typically during play the parties have “safe words” that the submissive player can use to indicate that he/she wants to limit or stop what is currently going on.  For example, safe words often chosen are the colors of a traffic signal so that if the submissive says “red” the activity must stop, while “yellow” means caution, and “green” is a request for more. 

BDSM players are engaged in a sexual/sensual game.  Their play sessions are called “scenes” and the implements (whips, clamps, restraints, etc.) are “toys.”  This is consensual fun involving whatever activity the players think is worth exploring.  A famous BDSM expert once said that the leather world is like a smorgasbord: take from the table what you want and ignore the rest.  Some players want only bondage and nothing more, others only domination/submission, while yet others want to explore the line between pleasure and pain and see what it’s like to keep the bottom suspended in that moment for as long as possible.

Why would anyone want to submit to the complete control of another in a sexual situation, even if for a limited time?  For many people the answer is a complete refusal to contemplate such a step—sex should be between equals.  But for others the BDSM games are very attractive as a possibility.  Some people tire of the constant struggle to control their lives and find great relief in letting it all go, leave decisions and sexual creativity to another.  This is particularly true of those who in their usual activities are themselves the boss and constantly in charge.  One dominatrix I know told me that at one of her dungeon parties two of the submissives were airline pilots and another submissive was vice president of a major soft drink company.  She lined them up and got out her paddles.  A good time was had by all.

There may easily be a genetic component to this urge to submit.  In cave societies there was a leader and everyone did what the leader said.  Those who were able to submit without hassle had a better chance for survival.  Consider a pack of gorillas (close cousins of ours) and the silverback who leads them.  What the silverback wants he gets and the others kowtow or else.

Now let’s return to the question at issue: is BDSM deeming to women?  Well, where the woman is the dominant (the “Top” in BDSM lingo), obviously not.  But where, as in “Fifty Shades of Grey” she is the submissive (“bottom”), what then? 

The answer is that such a woman has chosen to play a game, one she can stop at anytime.  That’s her right as a human being.  To say she’s wrong to make this choice is to choose for her, to rule that she has to restrict her fantasies because others don’t like how it looks.  When it comes to sexual play we’re all individuals, and restricting what consenting adults can do to only one approved model is a failure of imagination.  Political correctness has no place in the bedroom (or the dungeon).  In their private fun men and women should be free to romp as they please, and the choices they make then are their own.

So “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be bad art, or it may not follow all the rules the BDSM community suggests, and it’s certainly not on any recommended feminist lists, but its very popularity demonstrates that large numbers of women find it fascinating to contemplate the possibilities it suggests.  The right of all women to control their own private lives demands they be left to their fun.

Related Posts:
"Rape, Biology, and Tricks of the Mind," January 8, 2015,
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013,