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 http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2014/11/gay-marriage-6th-circuit-jeffrey-sutton.html.]

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 http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2010/03/aging-gay-rights-activist.html.

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; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/06/married-at-last-gay-lawyer-looks-at.html
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013, http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html.


  1. I don't think it's necessarily homophobia when someone uses the "wrong" word in referring to your relationship. Homophobia reflects prejudice and fear, not linguistic ignorance. That you begin by saying that the "correct" language is still uncertain, even among married gay couples, should preclude the use of homophobia. People who avoid using "husband" and "wife" may just as likely be seeking to avoid offending you by using the "wrong" word as to be suggesting that your marriage is somehow less legitimate than one between a man and a woman.

    Language is a continuing problem because the definitions have changed and continue to evolve. Look at the changing definitions racial minorities over the last 30 years. What was once a source of pride is now an insult. Different people want to be called different things, and are offended by the use of the wrong term. "Husband" and "wife" could easily be seen as outdated gender stereotypes by some. I think we all must be more accepting of outdated language slips, and use them as a teaching moment rather than an opportunity for offense (or to refer to them as a mild form of homophobia or racism, which likely is not the case if coming from someone who is your friend and fully accepts your relationship).

    Just a thought from someone who admires you greatly. I could easily have tried to avoid using the term "husband" when referring to your relationship out of fear that it would be taken as the "wrong" term, and I have not the slightest belief that your marriage is less legitimate than anyone else's.

  2. You're night that no offense is likely to be meant, and perhaps I was too harsh too call it a mild form of homophobia when it's most likely merely confusion.

  3. Doug, one interesting item I've found as I've moved around the country a bit over the past 6 or so years: My most socially conservative co-workers in Massachusetts don't think twice about referring to my husband as such. My gut tells me that's because Massachusetts has had same-sex marriage for over a decade now; from my co-workers in California, the word that has been used most often is "spouse," to which I take no offense, particularly now that the federal definition of spouse includes the members of same-sex married couples; when I go back home to Ohio to see family, etc., well, that's a different story. And most likely even inside Ohio it depends on location - I'm giving a presentation at Cleveland-Marshall Law on Friday, so we'll see if Cleveland lives up to its reputation of being more "liberal" (whatever that means) than my hometown of Cincinnati. Anyway, great post, and good food for thought!


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