Queer Cosplay

Straight couples and their use of the word “partner”

Pixabay | Photo courtesy
Though “partner” has historical ties to the LGBTQ community, it’s being used more frequently by straight couples.

The history of the term “partner” is typically used by LGBTQ persons in relationships. This was a way of finding a suitable term for committed queer relationships in a time when marriage rights for these individuals were often refused. 

This term even has a common sitcom trope, where someone is introduced as a “partner.” Farcical chaos ensues as the characters try to determine if the person meant they are in a gay relationship or they do business with this person. With this history, “partner,” has become a well-known signaling term—if you have one, you’re likely gay.

However, this term has had a resurgence among cisgender and heterosexual couples. Notably, Jennifer Siebel Newsom made headlines last year when she announced she would be referred to as “First Partner” instead of “First Lady” to the recently elected Governor Gavin Newsom of California. 

Newsom is a prominent feminist and is known for founding the Representation Project, as well as writing, producing, and directing the documentary, Miss Representation, an analysis of the media’s portrayal of women. Of the decision, she said that it was an “opportunity to advocate for a more equitable future.” This is a virtuous aim, but would “First Spouse,” or “First Person,” not have had the same impact?

Straight and cisgender couples have many reasons of their own for using “partner.” First, it’s gender-neutral. By using it in place of “girlfriend” or “husband,” it can shirk the historical weight and implications of these words. 

“Girlfriend” and “boyfriend” can feel immature and lacking in a sense of commitment. “Husband” and “wife” are old fashioned and conjure images of traditional gender roles; like a woman cooking dinner or a man being the breadwinner. With both of these pairs, there is an underlying power dynamic that progressively-minded couples wish to avoid. They choose “partner” as a way to show their commitment while enforcing a more equal footing for each.

Another reason for the term’s use is that it’s hard to know if a couple IS queer—they could be straight-passing. Many use “partner” because it’s the term they had used in the past when in more obviously queer relationships. 

When straight couples use “partner,” it often feels misleading, a sort of queer cosplay. It’s as if they are saying “Yeah, I’m straight, but I’m not that kind of straight. I’m hip!” 

For example, if a bisexual man had dated men in the past, and is now with a woman, why switch up his vocabulary if it works just as well? Along with that, you cannot tell the genders and identities of people in a relationship without directly asking them. 

One person could be non-binary and feel most comfortable being referred to as “partner.” In fact, it is a popular opinion in the queer community that “partner” be used exclusively to refer to nonbinary significant others, regardless of relationship type, as again, it is genderneutral.

Many see “partner” as an attractive catch-all term. It’s versatile in that it can be used for any identity or relationship status. But the history of the word and its obvious implications cannot be ignored. When straight couples use “partner,” it often feels misleading, a sort of queer cosplay. It’s as if they are saying “Yeah, I’m straight, but I’m not that kind of straight. I’m hip!” 

I understand that this is not their intent. Many see this as a way of expressing their alliance with the queer community. However, this often feels less like inclusion and more like usurpation. Straight allies need to find a way to show their support of the queer community without constantly inserting themselves into the culture.

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