Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender Understanding

Why I say “partner” instead of boyfriend or girlfriend

by Sam Killermann · 37 comments

in Social Justice

Using the term “partner” to replace boyfriend or girlfriend is widely suggested as a means to speak more inclusively, allowing gay, lesbian, or bisexual people feel more comfortable.  When I use this term to refer to my partner around straight people, I’m often asked, “why did you say your partner instead of your girlfriend?”  What’s the point?  Let me explain the three main reasons why I have replaced boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife with partner.

1. It doesn’t hurt anyone to say partner

Using the term “partner”, particularly when inquiring about stranger’s partner (“how long have you been with your partner?” instead of “how long have you been with your girlfriend?”), avoids the heteronormative assumption that the guy you are asking has a girlfriend/wife or the gal you are asking has a boyfriend/husband.

If a person is straight, no harm done.  A straight man may raise an eyebrow at the term partner instead of hearing you ask about his girlfriend, but that’s about it.  A gay man, on the other hand, will likely feel uncomfortable if you ask him if he has a girlfriend.

2. Saying partner makes lesbian, bi-, and gay people feel safer around me

Howdy PartnerTaking the initiative to use an inclusive word like partner is tantamount to pinning a button to my chest that says “I care.”  This goes for everyone, straight, bi-, gay, lesbian, or otherwise.  Partner is a recognized word of safety and concern within the LGBTA community.

One of the toughest things about identifying with a targeted group is knowing who you can confide in and who you might want to avoid, at least until the times change a bit.  Language is a effective way to allow others, particularly people who don’t know you very well, that you fall into the former group, the group that can be trusted.

3. Using partner and other inclusive language raises awareness that we still have much progress to make

Many people get comfortable in their lives and become more and more oblivious to the simple fact that we do not live in an equitable society, where people of all identities have the same access to resources.  Inclusive language is a great direct step to creating a safe space for everyone, but it also has a powerful indirect effect.

Oftentimes, intentionally using inclusive language, like saying partner instead of boyfriend/girlfriend, will create an opportunity for a discussion about why you use such language.  As I mentioned before, this happens to me quite often.  When a question like this is asked, an educational opportunity is presented.  You can explain what you said, highlighting your commitment to achieving social justice–something we still have a long way to go to achieve.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • NZReader

    I find this a very interesting article because in NZ ‘partner’ is quite a common term, maybe more so than ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ for anyone over 25. Not that long ago I was asked by a woman from the US why I say partner and was rather confused because I thought everyone did… This story has opened my eyes to its significance.

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      This story made me smile.  You were being progressive in the US and you didn’t even know it.  Partner raises a lot of eyebrows in the US, to be sure, but it’s becoming more and more accepted with each passing month, it seems.

    • Chels

      Same in the UK – “partner” is more common. I like that it creates a sense of privacy about your relationship. It can mean any relationship that is substantial (“boyfriend” “girlfriend” -type or marriage, etc.)

      • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

        When it is used here, it has the same meaning. We just haven’t caught up on using it as a norm yet, it seems.

  • Hillary Carter

    I get your argument, but I still hate that word. You’re not in real estate together (unless you are). And, I think that it still sounds like a euphemism, something you say in polite company because you don’t want grandma to know the person you brought to the family picnic is actually your roommate with benefits. Significant other is clunky, but at least it emphasizes that they’re “significant.”

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Hi Hillary, thanks for sharing!

      Look at the comment chain below (started with NZ Reader).  ”Partner” is only weird because it’s still weird.  Those other reactions go away once you get used to hearing it – it took a while, but that’s the case for me.
      But I can understand where you’re coming from, for sure.  And I also like the term significant other.  And sig-fig (a chemistry reference, and only two syllables).

      • Hillary Carter

        I get the impression though, that partner has always been the default term there. Here I think it packs a certain connotation and always will. That connotation being, I don’t want my hetero terms applied to your homo relationship. Also, “partners” is how many you’ve had when you visit the local clinic. It’s just so, sterile.

        I get the cultural sensitivity and I respect your choice, but in our culture the word sucks. In general it falls flat when used to identify someone you care for. It’s like calling my mom, “just a family member.”

        So yeah, I like the nerdy sig fig much better. Though, as a heteroflexible boy-chick and professional word nerd, I will always side with those who choose to conjure up creative descriptors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jinkist Echo

    I’ve heard my mom refer to her husband over the phone as her partner. It’s not weird at all to me.

  • El

    It’s also helpful in not erasing people with non-binary identities. I would understand if I were perceived as someone’s girlfriend, but the word would be somewhat uncomfortable because I don’t identify as “girl.”

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Yes! That’s a great additional point.  Gender and sexuality are so incredibly interrelated.

  • IAmNotTheWalrus

    I was just wondering–what would be another example of inclusive language besides “partner”?

    • http://samuelkillermann.com/ Samuel Killermann

      Sure! I’ll also say “significant other,” “significan figure,” “[main] squeeze” (thank my dad for that one)…  good enough, or more?

  • Marissa

    In addition to the reasons you mention above, I personally like the word “partner” in my hetero relationship because I feel like “boyfriend” falls short when describing my male partner of four years. We’re not married, but we’ve been living together for a while now and our relationship is not in the same class as “boyfriends” I had in high school. Partner feels more serious, more intentional: it’s similar to “significant other” but not as polysyllabic. 
    Plus, when I say partner it feels like we’re on the same team. It doesn’t seem clinical to me at all, but says to me that “we’re best friends and lovers who are facing stuff together.”

    • Just a guy

      This reason actually makes more sense to me than any of the above mentioned

  • Dan

    I mostly disagree with that and personally I feel really offended when someone calls my girlfriend “my partner”, because it sounds like my relationship

    p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }
    doesn’t worth the same as the heterosexual ones. And it doesn’t change anything: My main language is portuguese, and our words for “partner” are “gendered”: “parceiro” for male, “parceira” for female; most of our words, by the way, in the “neutral gender” form are basically male ones. Another reason is that around here people tend to think only of “sexual partner” and this may reinforce the overly sexual image of homosexuals (women and men). But I don’t know, this may be cultural thing anyway.

    (sorry for the bad english)

  • Thomas

    Hi Sam,
    I’ve just discovered your blog and it’s great.

    People often underestimate how language determines, and often biases, our thoughts. So I want to share an anecdote with you : I’m a French guy now living in Belgium, and I’ve wondered for some time why Belgium and Netherlands have been the first countries to allow gay marriage. Then, I’ve learned a bit of Dutch (as you may know, both countries share this language), and I’ve been struck by a fact: though, like german, dutch put articles before nouns to determine them as male, feminine or neutral, articles for male and feminine nouns are exactly the same, so that there is no grammatical distinction between them (contrary to neutral nouns, which have a distinct article). So I think Dutch and dutch-speaking Belgians were somehow made ready by their own language to accept that gender is not such a big deal, and there is no rational reason same-gender and other couples should not have the same rights.

    Of course, other elements come into account, too (to begin with, the long liberal political tradition in those countries), but I think it’s a good clue as to how language affects our thinking and prejudices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Deanna.Hallmark Deanna Joy Hallmark

    As a trans girl in transition, being able to talk about my “partner with whom I no longer live” instead of my “wife with whom I no longer live” allows me not to have to shut off 30 years of my life to people I have chosen not to reveal my status for reasons where I might risk scrutiny or discrimination. In other words, I don’t have to lie about my past or worry about keeping my story straight, even to the use of gender pronouns. I am happy to say that being able to include her in my conversations in a relaxed way has, so far, made further explanation or “education” unnecessary.

    • MoDare

      How about ‘spouse’?

  • Millie

    I’ve always said ‘other half’. But I really like Partner, makes me think of a dance partner. And dancing with the person I love is something I will always want to remember.

  • Abi

    My issue with “partner” has nothing to do with inclusiveness, or political correctness (phew). I’ve just had countless mix-ups, when people talk about their golf/business/dance partners. Some of my friends and I use the term “S.O.” for significant other (but truncated) because it’s universal, inclusive and, well, people don’t have significant golfers.

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  • Thomas Waldrop

    I agree with the intent of this, but when I think about the relationship I want to have with another man one day, I don’t think about my partner. I think about my boyfriend and eventual husband. Maybe that’s just me though.

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  • Kristina

    Happy to land upon this post. I call my long term (15+ years) boyfriend, who is also my business partner, my partner. Some of his contacts are weirded out by it. We are more than boyfriend/girlfriend. Wife sounds too ownershippy to me though when we marry he’ll probably call me his wife & I’ll call him my partner. We are partners in life, business, so partner fits.

  • Sunny

    I wish my language had a truly non-gendered way to say partner.

  • Tyrese

    Wow. Political correctness at its finest.

  • Jay Irvine

    I use “partner” as well, for my own relationships, and it does still feel weird, I think because it does conjure up images of business partners and closeted gays, but I think it is a good word and should become more mainstream. I actually prefer the variant “life-partner” – at least that avoids making it sound like we’re selling real estate together! Though it doesn’t cover casual or early-stages relationships, so it’s not perfect. “Significant other” while less… vague? feels a bit stilted, maybe because of all the extra syllables. I tend to not like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” not because they’re not inclusive (if the person in question identifies as male or female, and you know which, they’re perfectly serviceable, though I agree about not using them in opening questions for the reason you mention) – I just feel that once you’re out of high school “girl” and “boy” aren’t perfectly appropriate any more. I actually do try to use gendered terms with LGBQ and trans* people once I know how they identify – Asking my lesbian friend how her ladyfriend is doing seems more supportive than asking about her partner, because it doesn’t give the impression of trying to dodge the issue, so to speak. Of course if you don’t know, or you know the person prefers gender-neutral terms than those should be used.

  • Whuuuuuuuuut

    Ugh. The writer of this article is such a liberal whiteboy emasculated DORK.

  • rayhigh

    Your reasons are lame. Whenever someone starts that ‘partner’ shit, my immediate response is “oh, what kind of business are you in?”

    • Just a guy

      I know, I would cringe if a girl called me her ‘partner’. I don’t need to adopt some bland label for something in my own personal life in order to prove that I’m not a gay-bashing asshole, I think the best way to prove that is by…not being a gay-bashing asshole.

      • MoDare

        Indeed. I am 100% behind marriage/social/all equality regardless of gender etc., but I can’t stand this ‘partner’ shit…

  • M.Smith

    I get that it is more inclusive to use the word ‘partner’ but as a trans man I like the validation of my gender identity that I get when my partner introduces me as their boyfriend. I guess this is an example of when to use the Platinum Rule?

  • Andy Garcia

    As a gay man, the term “partner” makes me feel uncomfortable. I despise the term “partner”. We’re not Batman and Robin! When people refer to my fiance’ as my partner it makes me feel like they see me as different and I am not different. Love is about Hearts not parts. If you want everyone to feel included simply refer to them as you would everyone else. It would be far simpler to refer to the 10% of us who are LGBT by the same terminology than to suggest the other 90% change how people in a relationship have been referring to each other for hundreds of years.

    Just my perspective as I am not supreme overlord of all things gay…just a simple gay individual with an amazing fiance’ soon to be HUSBAND.

    • Just a guy

      Well put, I agree with this wholeheartedly!

  • Just a guy

    I think gay people generally feel comfortable around me because I generally emanate an energy of acceptance and non-judgement. I do not need to change how I refer to something in MY personal life, thank you very much. A gay guy/girl can refer to their lover however they want around me and it’s not going to bother me, and I’m sure that me referring to my lady as my ‘girlfriend’ is not going to offend any gays (or if it does, then they probably have personal problems to work on).