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
Taking 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.