Recently, my Civil Partner* and I were mentioned in a couple of books about feminism, because of the ‘menstrual activism’ (tampon jokes) we’ve been doing for the last five years. One of the books, New Blood by Chris Bobel, mentioned us with our knowledge, permission and collaboration and, best of all, got all the facts right. (I even got my own listing in the index! Yay!) Bobel made particular mention of a recent edition of our zine Adventures in Menstruating in which we talked about our civil partnership ceremony, and, where relevant, she referred to us as each other’s ’wife’.
The other book (the name escapes me right now, update to follow) - whose interest in us was very flattering but somewhat unexpected, as we heard nothing about it until the book was in print - mentioned me briefly as my partner’s ‘friend’.
Now, there could be a variety of reasons for this.
1) Having read the zines (including the one about the wedding), seen the show and/or heard about us second hand, perhaps the writers still didn’t pick up on the nature of our relationship, making the assumption that it was platonic. Fair enough, but surprising, as it’s not exactly something we keep under wraps.
2) Maybe they had an inkling that we were together but weren’t sure, and so stayed in the ‘neutral’ zone of ‘friend’ in order to avoid giving offence. This seems quite likely, but mystifies me. If they weren’t sure, why on earth didn’t they ask? We’re easy enough to track down…
But there’s a third option, and I really want to believe it isn’t the case here, but sadly I can’t altogether discount it.
3) Maybe they KNEW we were a same sex couple, KNEW we had had a civil partnership ceremony, and NONETHELESS chose to refer to our relationship in a way that implied that it was platonic because the lesbian thing was ‘not relevant’ or ‘nobody else’s business’.
They seem like good people, so I’m going to assume this wasn’t the case, because this is something I find highly offensive: the ‘Um…friend’ gambit.
I’ve had ‘um...friends’ before: girlfriends who, in certain contexts, were not at liberty to disclose the nature of our relationship and had to go down the ‘we’re just jolly good chums’ route. Near the beginning of our relationship, the Missus and I had to play the ‘and this is my um…friend’ game with potentially homophobic Catholic in laws who, as it turned out, were anything but (anything but homophobic, that is, they’re still Catholic.).
Now, there is nothing wrong with this. When to disclose the full nature of a relationship is a personal decision that lies with any couple of any sexual orientation. If I choose to call my wife my 'friend' because I don’t want to be seen as romantically involved with her, whatever my motives are, that’s my right. It’s not a right I really make use of any more, but it’s served me well in difficult situations in the past, and thankfully, I haven’t ever really had to make a habit of it.
What really gets me wound up is when other people use the ‘um…friend’ tack on our behalf, in order to disguise our relationship. Great. That's great. I really appreciate the way you’ve just made the assumption that I’m ashamed of my sexual orientation and prefer to keep my marital status hidden. No, really, thanks. Thanks for forcing me to either directly contradict you by screaming my sexuality from the rooftops in order to undo the misinformation you just deliberately sent out into the world, or let it stand and give the impression that I prefer to be in the closet. Thanks so much for knowing what’s best for me and my um…friend.
Of course you have to be careful about outing couples who don’t want to be outed. Of course you shouldn’t make the assumption, in this homophobic world, that it’s always safe for a same sex couple to be open about their marital status, but making the assumption that every same sex couple definitely wants to remain in the closet is, frankly, insulting. It is an attitude informed by an opinion that same sex relationships are inherently something to be ashamed of, and it propagates the culture of silence which makes it so easy for homophobia to thrive.
Don’t worry though, there’s a really easy way around this.
If you’re not sure how a couple prefer to publicly define their relationship, bloody well ask them! Politely! It's really that simple! No matter what their sexual orientation, they will probably appreciate you being considerate enough to check it out with them.
And if you inadvertently offend a pair of 'jolly good chums' with the implication that they might possibly come off as a couple… well, having their homophobia challenged in such a positive and non-confrontational way won’t do them any harm at all.
Stay tuned for part 2 – the faux wife phenomenon.
* We both prefer to use the term ‘wife’, but thanks to mealy-mouthed British legislation, LEGALLY, what we are is each other’s ‘civil partner’. We’re not married, we’re just civilized. Boo.