Can straight people use the word “partner?”
Girlfriend. Boyfriend. Other half. Bae. We have a lot of names for our significant others. How we define our relationships is not only a personal choice, but also a political one. As gender-neutral terms like “partner” or “spouse” become more popular in both heterosexual and queer relationships, the question of who claims these labels becomes more relevant. Should straight people use the word “partner,” or is that an appropriation of queer culture?
Sure, the term you use to describe your significant other depends on gender, sexuality, the length and seriousness of the relationship, and whether the relationship is monogamous or polyamorous. But it also reflects how you want others to read your relationship. Is it disingenuous to use the word “partner” if you are a straight cis person in a relationship with another straight cis person?
Personally, as a cis woman who has only been in hetero relationships, I’ve gone back and forth between using “boyfriend” and “partner” for years. While I don’t feel comfortable claiming queerness as a political identity, I definitely don’t fall into the exclusively heterosexual category on the Kinsey scale. As I get older, the word “boyfriend” does not seem to fit the seriousness of my relationships, and I feel that “partner” connotes a more equal relationship dynamic with less of the gendered baggage. However, I completely understand when queer friends complain that straight couples using a traditionally queer term is irritating — to them, it comes across as trying to signal a type of “coolness” while still enjoying the benefits of straight privilege.
The actual definition of "partner"
Whether you are straight or queer, there are some pros to using the term “partner.” For one, “partner” connotes equality, or being a team. According to Merriam-Webster, a partner is “a person with whom one shares an intimate relationship,” or, “one member of a couple.” The word actually originally meant “one that shares” — at its most basic level, partnership means sharing an experience or relationship with another person. In this way, “partner” deviates from the binary, patriarchal connotations of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” or “husband” and “wife.” For some, “partner” is a better, less casual way to describe long-term relationships outside of marriage. There is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend or girlfriend as an adult, but some people, myself included, prefer “partner” because it seems more mature, less reminiscent of adolescence. I am past the point of dating boys or girls, but “man friend” or “woman friend” don’t quite roll off the tongue.
The main argument I have come across for using “partner” is that it normalizes gender-neutral terms, making it easier and safer for queer and nonbinary folks to navigate conversations about their relationships. Similar to straight people getting into the habit of stating their pronouns, straight people regularly using gender neutral terms to refer to their significant others makes it less unusual for queer and nonbinary people to do so. For example, if someone does not want to out themselves or misgender their significant other, “partner” is a more comfortable term for them to use.
On the other hand, when cis straight people use “partner,” it blurs a traditionally queer-coded word. For hetero couples, who have had the legal right to marry and whose relationships were historically supported and centered by society, to use a word with roots in “unconventional” queer relationships is understandably a sore spot for some members of the queer community. In their understanding, straight couples already have their own words (i.e. boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife), so why hijack the one term that queer people have?
Anything to do with identity, sexuality, and gender is bound to be complicated — which is why it is difficult to prescribe any hard and fast rules about language. “Partner” is especially messy, since policing its use means assuming a lot of personal information about people. For example, just because someone is straight-passing or cis-passing does not mean that they identify as straight or cis. Automatically presuming that all hetero relationships are between straight, cis people not only erases bisexual and pansexual folks in same-sex relationships, but also nonbinary and genderqueer folks. Are only queer-presenting relationships allowed to claim the term? This type of thinking presents a frustrating double-bind: if you are too visibly queer you don’t fit in the straight community, but if you are not visibly queer enough, you don’t fit in the queer community.
I’m not here to decide whether straight couples are “allowed” to use “partner” — the term may be offensive to some, while simply annoying to others, or sometimes not a problem at all. I’ve always understood queerness to be a way of expanding our understandings of relationships, gender, and sexuality. To me, embracing more inclusive labels like “partner” reflects the fluidity and expansiveness of queerness itself, allowing people to question their gender and sexuality even within traditionally straight relationships.