Why “partners” isn’t always the word to use


Image of two people wearing rainbow accessories facing away from the camera and talking
Photo by Madeline McInnis

There’s no doubt that our words have impact. From our earliest days in elementary school, we’re told to watch our words.

Even when your words may seem well-intentioned, the people on the receiving end may not agree. Especially when you’re talking about a person’s personal life, you don’t get to decide that their word choice is wrong.

The biggest example of this in my life happened when I was with my ex-girlfriend. People would always refer to us as “partners.”

It was nice enough to be acknowledged for our relationship — that wasn’t easy to have in a Catholic high school as the only openly gay couple.

What I didn’t like, however, was the word choice of “partners.” Even when I specifically asked for people to refer to me as her girlfriend, I was still her “partner.”

It’s great to start out with the general rules. Using gender-neutral words for relationships, like “partner,” is great and it can work to erase heteronormativity.

I really appreciate the people that use “partner” for all relationships, not just the same-sex partnerships. Inclusive language makes everyone feel included.

However, when “partner” is only being used for LGBTQ+ couples, that’s where the trouble arises.

Since I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend, not a single person has attempted to call us “partners.” It’s easy to call him my boyfriend and for me to be his girlfriend.

Why isn’t that the same for same-sex couples? Why is word choice so hard?

Relationships can be complicated, no matter the scenario. What never helps is making assumptions about how others choose to identify.

If the only time you rerfer to a couple as ‘partners’ is when they pass for the same gender, you may need to reevaluate your use of the word and how correct it actually is.  

Using inclusive words, as in every other situation, makes everything a lot easier on everyone involved and can bring comfort to those involved in the relationship in question.

Even if it’s not the generic politically correct language, these are people with real experiences and that needs to be considered.

If someone with a real experience is a minority, no one gets to decide they’re wrong when they want to be called something else.

A major complaint about politically correct culture is that it’s hard to keep up with what’s offensive and what isn’t.

Although that’s a fair criticism, I don’t think it’s well-founded.

The biggest thing about politically correct language is to make people feel as comfortable as possible while remaining accurate.

However, the individual’s comfort and accuracy can differ from that of the collective whole.

If the only time you refer to a couple as “partners” is when they pass for the same gender, you may need to reevaluate your use of the word and how correct it actually is.

In a world that is so cruel to people who have been marginalized, beat down or hurt in some other way, why can’t we just use simple words to help them feel just a little more comfortable in themselves and their situations?

There’s a certain trust that coincides with making the effort to be inclusive of people and use the terms that they prefer.

But there’s always one easy way to find out what words a person prefers — ask.

As uncomfortable as it may seem at the time, I promise that it’ll be worth it.

It shows that you care enough about the other person to genuinely try to understand them.

Unless you’re referring to every relationship as partners, remember that they’re not cowboys, nor are they doing science experiments together: they’re in a relationship.

Call it what it is and listen if you happen to get it wrong.

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