The marriage-equality elephant in the room

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At the dinner party for the wedding of friends who became the first same-sex couple in their New Jersey county to legally wed last week, the discussion turned to how they would refer to one another now that they’re married. Would it be “partner,” “spouse” or “husband”?

At this early stage of marriage equality, there is no consensus on titles, but I’ve noticed that younger couples seem to have an easier time using the term “husband” for one other, or in the case with women, “wife.” Those of us who are a little older, it seems, prefer “partner.” Understanding this difference requires an understanding of the history of the gay-rights struggle back to 1969.

That was the year that marriage equality became a real issue. The Rev. Troy Perry of Metropolitan Community Church started to perform commitment ceremonies and, within a few years, parishioners from his churches around the nation began to push the government by applying for marriage certificates. But, the majority of the gay-rights movement at the time was very anti-religious and felt that it was religion that had oppressed LGBT people for hundreds of years. They argued that marriage was a religious institution and, therefore, we should not try to become “heterosexual.” This made most of the activists in the movement act somewhat condescending to Perry and MCC. I can personally attest to this since I was a member of a group of gay men and women who picketed Troy and his organizing meetings. That’s actually how we met and became friends.

But aside from the religious aspect, there’s another issue that LGBT pioneers are facing when they hear those titles. Many, like myself, recall the days not so long ago — and which even still happens in some places today when a naive person has never personally met an LGBT person — when an LGBT couple would be asked, “Which one of you plays the man and which is the wife?”

To many of us who have attempted to deal with that question over the years, it was disheartening. In answering, you tried not to insult the person asking the question by explaining that there was more to a relationship than simply sex and role-playing. Our relationships are about building an entire life together.

For same-sex couples, deciding how to refer to one another is a personal decision and there is no correct title. But maybe those who use the terma “husband” and “wife” are doing us all a favor since, in seeing two husbands or two wives, that naive person won’t be able to ask which is the husband and which is the wife.

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at [email protected].