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Why I'm nobody's 'wife:' Queer culture deserves identifiers that look forward, not backward

I’ve actively eschewed the word in favor of less fraught terms like “spouse” or “partner” in an effort to protest domestic limitations and gendered expectations.
Image: Illustration of a broom sweeping up debris with W-I-F-E letters into a dustpan.
"Wife" still echoes traditional and gendered expectations about how women should behave.Lily Lambie-Kiernan / for NBC News

Queer women who use the word “wife” to signal their marital status completely confound me. Whether used by Baby Boomer queers like 58-year-old actress Jodie Foster, when accepting her Golden Globe a few weeks ago, or Gen Xers like the brilliant Roxane Gay, in a recent essay she penned for The New York Times, or by millennials like 35-year-old actress-singer Raven Symoné, when introducing her newly betrothed in a video she posted on Instagram, hearing queer women refer to their “wives” passes through my mind like a riddle I’ll never solve.

Hearing queer women refer to their “wives” passes through my mind like a riddle I’ll never solve.

I understand the arguments, many of them helpfully laid out for me by Cassandra Corey, a senior gifts officer at the Human Rights Campaign, in favor of the term — it helps people who might be perceived as straight affirm their queer identities; it’s a way to pay homage to those who’ve fought for our right to wed; it allows those of us who aspire to normalcy affirm our equal footing alongside opposite-sex couples. But I’ve actively eschewed the word “wife” in favor of less fraught terms like “spouse” or “partner” in an effort to protest both the limitations the role has historically placed on women, and the way it reinforces a gendered binary.

Although I’ve grudgingly used the term in print at an editor’s behest or to avoid the stilted sound of “spouse,” I still struggle to hear it as anything but a form of disparagement in a queer cultural context.

Ellen Kahn, the senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign, explains why the term upsets her — and my — feminist sensibilities, noting that her ears “pricked up” when she started noticing young LGBTQ people using it. “As a woman, as a lesbian, as a gender nonconforming person, my coming of age is tied up in second wave lesbian feminism and so much of that ethos is around crushing the patriarchy or dismantling male supremacy,” she tells me. “So being a ‘wife’ was seen as this confining, limiting, almost belittling sort of term. It meant you didn’t have your own life and identity.”

The 80-year-old pioneering lesbian historian Lillian Faderman who’s been partnered with her spouse Phyllis for 48 years, echoes Kahn’s sentiments: “We never, never use wife towards one another because of the freighted history of the term. We were feminists in the early 1970s and wife meant something that it certainly doesn’t mean today.”

“Wives” have certainly secured equal legal standing vis-à-vis their husbands since the 1970s, but the cultural expectations around being someone’s wife still means shouldering the bulk of domestic burdens, which continues to hinder our ability to pursue and fully actualize our highest professional (and personal) ambitions. Wives still do a disproportionate amount of housework (two hours more daily, according to this study) and childcare (even when wives are the main breadwinners), and often must subvert their professional aspirations for the greater good of the family. Covid-19 has only exacerbated these marital gender disparities: According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, one in three mothers’ careers may be derailed by the virus.

Even though we are floating on the fourth wave of feminism, I personally know several straight women who firmly count themselves as feminists (and go to incredible trouble to set a feminist agenda for their daughters), but who still take on the lion’s share of parental and domestic responsibilities in their households, feeling it’s expected of them. In other words the term wife still abides in, and is imbued with, its sexist past.

I think many of our queer forebearers would find our use of the word an ironic step backwards.

I think many of our queer forebearers would find our use of the word — and our embrace of the institution it’s tethered to — an ironic step backwards. The 1960s and 70s gay liberationists, influenced by radical feminism, sought to forge a new value system, one that would boldly and irreverently challenge, even upend, institutions and orthodoxies like marriage and monogamy that govern our lives. Using traditional marital nomenclature to define our relationships is out of sync with this historical ethos.

Historian Faderman disagrees, seeing the spirit of our queer ancestors in the use of the term wife, likening it to the reclamation of the word “queer.” Once a harsh putdown, queer now functions as an affirming umbrella label for all sexual and gender identities that deviate from the norm. “I don’t think it’s used as a desire to assimilate and fit in. I don’t know how conscious it is, but I think it’s kind of defiant,” Faderman says, adding that the stiff binary it erects in a male-female dynamic becomes undone in same-sex unions. “There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Wow, I’m actually really happy it’s not so loaded for these younger folks. It can be a bit of a ‘f---- you,’” Kahn agrees.

But unlike the word queer, which was always pregnant with radical possibilities as a concept and expression of nonconformity, wife is a word that resonates with traditional edicts and gendered expectations about how women should behave.

And it’s an especially odd choice for younger LGBTQ people, who’ve helped us bust binaries by embracing “they” and “them” pronouns and expand the ways we can express our gendered selves.

“Wife” is flatly misaligned with this bold — and necessary — project. It’s a word that looks backward, rather than forward — and if queer culture is anything, it’s a point of view that seeks to reimagine and recreate the world, rather than conform to its stifling status quo.