More Thoughts on Gender Neutral Language: Pete’s Husband

Two hands making a heart

My 91 year old Aunt Heidi is a big fan of Mayor Pete, and last week in the middle of an engaging chat about his chances of winning the Democratic nomination, she confessed that it bothers her a little when Pete talks about “his husband.” It’s not the fact that he’s gay or that he’s married to a man — that doesn’t concern her at all. And she isn’t like the woman at the Iowa caucus who voted for Buttigieg and then discovered that he was gay and wanted her vote back. But when Pete says “my husband” it confuses Heidi. Shouldn’t he say “my wife”? or does Chasten call Pete his wife?

Uh oh.

That comment was a throwback to when I was growing up back in the second half of the last century. “Who leads when they dance? Har har!” was the first quip someone would toss out when two men were obviously together. And it was always met with hearty guffaws. In order to “normalize” same-sex couples, people tried to cram them into the familiar male/female mold.

To be fair, my aunt did live the majority of her years in the last century, so I cut her some slack. As Mayor Pete himself says, we meet people where they are and try to help them along in their understanding.

The fact is, people of my aunt’s generation weren’t exposed to same-sex couples the way we are today. It can be hard to realize how much attitudes about same sex relationships have changed in just the past two decades, but they’ve changed a ton! In truth, the private lives of gay couples were nearly always hidden from view. And remember, it’s only been legal for a few years for same-sex couples to marry in the US. Aunt Heidi would never have known any same-sex couple who was actually married, so she would never have heard someone refer to their husband or wife. The best she would have heard would have been “partner.” And even more likely, just a vague reference to “my friend.”

So I took this opportunity to have a nice conversation with my aunt, and we cleared some things up. We talked about the marriages of real people that she knows, and we covered a lot of topics including gender roles in the 21st Century. By the end of our chat, I think my aunt had a much better understanding of Pete and Chasten Buttigieg, And I realized once again just how deeply gender stereotypes are ingrained in our culture, and just how limiting our language is.


“If there are two husbands,” Aunt Heidi wondered, “how does that work? Who is the wife?” Apparently, in my aunt’s way of looking at things, marriage doesn’t necessarily have to be between a man and a woman. But to make sense to her, it needed to be between “a husband” and “a wife.”

So I asked her what concept she was trying to define by using the labels “husband” and “wife.”

She explained that in her experience, someone in the relationship had to be the dominant person. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by dominant (I didn’t ask her if she meant who leads on the dance floor). And if one person was the dominant partner, didn’t that mean that the other person was the submissive or weak person?

It seems that what she meant by “husband” was more or less akin to CEO of the Family: two people aren’t going to agree on everything all the time. Somebody has to be the final authority. Somebody has to make the important decisions and the tough calls. Lay down the law. Discipline the children. Break the ties. Decide where the family is going on vacation this year. That person is the leader of the family. And in the old days, the family leader was the man: The Husband. What she wanted to know was who was the leader of the Buttigieg family.

She assumed it was Pete. Because he’s the one with the traditionally-male career: soldier, mayor, presidential candidate. Chasten is a teacher — a traditionally female role; Chasten is supporting Pete in his presidential bid: sitting in the audience during debates, fixing Pete’s tie before town hall appearances. Chasten is in the role typically held by The Wife. So when Pete refers to Chasten as his “husband” this creates cognitive dissonance in Aunt Heidi’s brain.

But this isn’t 1954. It’s time to let go of the I Love Lucy model of marital dynamics. Today, “Honey, I’m home!” is a punchline, not an aspiration. And even in 1954 it was only an artificial construct perpetuated by men for the benefit of men. The reality is that it rarely worked that way. How often did we hear the expression “We know who wears the pants in that family!” because women often failed to live up (or actually down) to the role that was assigned to them.

My aunt and I talked about how in relationships we were familiar with, even “traditional marriages” (between a man and a woman) the dominant person was not always the husband. We know plenty of examples where the woman is the more dominant person. Some men are happy to let their wives make the decisions or take the lead in many things. Sometimes the woman has the more assertive personality. Is the woman the “husband” in those cases? Nope.

And why does one person have to be dominant anyway? The reality is that in most marriages, one person is the final authority in some areas, and the other has the final say in other areas. In most areas, they work to reach a consensus. Because an ideal marriage is a partnership.

The words “husband” and “wife” don’t specify dominance, nor do they define specific roles within the relationship. Here are some examples that I reminded Aunt Heidi of which helped to illustrate my point here:

She worked when Uncle Mike was furloughed from his job. “Were you the husband on those days?”

Uncle Mike liked to cook and often made dinner on Sundays. “Was he the wife on those days?”

My cousin Mark and his wife both work full time and share chores. “Who is the husband in that marriage?”

I’m generally the “fix-it” person in our household. “Does that make me the husband when I’m fixing the leaky faucet but the wife when I’m cooking dinner?”

All of these little examples helped her to re-define what the words “husband” and “wife” really mean, or more accurately, don’t mean.

In the modern world we don’t assign tasks by gender. We divide them up according to interest and aptitude and available time. And where we can’t divide by choice, we simply divvy them up or split them down the middle.

In this New Age of Enlightenment we strive for equality, in family relationships, in professional relationships, and elsewhere. It’s still a struggle sometimes. But there is nothing to be gained by imposing the patriarchal model on relationships.

Thank goodness we are beginning to leave behind the obsolete belief that men and women have biologically predetermined traits, or that men are created by god or nature to rule their wives and families, or that men are inherently better or smarter or wiser than women. Roles within relationships should be determined on an individual basis, not by cultural mandates or stereotypes.

Roles can and should be fluid. And they are becoming even more fluid as women make more progress in the work place, and as difficult economic realities mean that in more homes both members of a domestic partnership must earn a paycheck.

When you look at it that way, same-sex relationships are actually quite enviable, specifically because they contain no preconceived notion of which person is dominant and no assignment of tasks: there’s no assumption about who will do the laundry, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, take out the trash. It all needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

So when we remove the subtext from the words “husband” and “wife” the nomenclature is simple: if you’re married to a man then that person is called your husband. If you’re married to a woman, that person is your wife. Regardless of roles within the relationship. And regardless of which gender you are.

But it’s actually pretty difficult to remove the subtext. The words carry a lot of baggage from centuries of oppression. And the use of the words “husband” and “wife” only perpetuates the idea of dominance and submission. The words themselves have become obsolete, even destructive.

In fact, it’s time we did away with these words and all of the sexist patriarchal baggage that comes with them. The idea that the man is the leader of the family is a construct from another time. The word “husband” and all of its connotations is a relic of the past.

We can’t all be in same-sex relationships, but we can all cast off patriarchal notions of gender inequality by opting to do away with antiquated gender-specific labels.

No more “husband” no more “wife.” From now on, only “spouse.”

6 Comments

  1. A quick report from inside the gay/lesbian community: Some of us find the words husband and wife awkward too. I know one couple in which one uses the word husband and the other uses the word partner. My–ahem–partner and I are (technically speaking) married but neither of us uses the word wife, or ever will. For me, it has a heavy ick factor associated with it–all those centuries of wifely subordination don’t wash off easily. The world changes. The language struggles to keep up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ellen, and sorry for the delay in responding; I have been laid low by a nasty virus. Yes, you made my point very well. I think it’s time we stopped using the husband/wife paradigm even in the husband/wife world. But I wonder, why do you use “partner” rather than “spouse”? The struggle for marriage equality was so hard fought, why not use a word that states unequivocally “We are married” rather than the ambiguous word partner. (Although I do have to admit that spouse does sound a bit clinical.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can only answer for myself, since as a group we’re all over the lot with this: I’ve never been a fan of marriage, either mixed-sex and same-. It carries too strong a whiff of its patriachal origins. I’ve never felt the need for anyone’s approval or recognition of my relationships. As I’ve gotten older, though, practicality’s gotten the upper hand. If one of us is hospitalized, we don’t want to have to fight to be recognized as next of kin. When one of us dies–and the odds are that we won’t do it in tandem–it’ll be easier for the survivor to unscramble the mess if we’re in a recognized relationship. And although my family wouldn’t cause problems, there was a time when, if there was an opening, my partner’s might well have.

    But with all that said, I still forget that I’m married. Genuinely. It’s an ongoing surprise. The best thing I can say about it is that it hasn’t changed our relationship.

    I’m not crazy about the word partner. It has too much overlap with the business-y meaning of the word. But I don’t have a better one and I’ve gotten used to it, as has the language in general. When I first came out, people were using the word lover, which is nice but was taken by outsiders as–well, we were simply stating a fact, but too many people heard as if we were talking to them about sex. It could get awkward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate your sharing your story. I tend to agree with your thoughts about marriage in general. It really only becomes necessary in a few instances –hospitalization and end of life, as you mentioned. Also I think it makes sense when children come into the picture, and maybe also when buying property. All practical matters where the law and the State are involved.

      As for the words we use to describe our relationships, it’s all so complicated and filled with so much baggage and social history. Especially now when so much is changing regarding women’s place in the world, and gender identity, etc., I find myself wishing that we could just scrub our language clean and start all over again from scratch.

      Liked by 1 person

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