Monday, 23 August 2010

Wife versus Um...friend Part 2 : The Faux Wives club.

Just when I think I’ve heard every permutation of casual homophobia/heterosexism in modern culture, something happens which proves me wrong.

I’m not talking about actual, hate-filled anti-queer rhetoric here. I’m talking about those little turns of phrase, which aren’t meant as insults at all, but which betray an attitude about non-heterosexual orientations that leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m talking about the people who use ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘crap’ but can’t be homophobic ‘because my best mate’s gay’. Whether you meant to or not, whether your gay friends object or not, you just used somebody’s sexual orientation as an insult. Not cool.

I’m talking about the people who create forms for employees or clients to fill in which do not allow for same sex relationships or non-binary gender identities. When we went to apply for our civil partnership, I had to be listed as the groom! Screw that.

I’m talking about - and I feel sort of bad about complaining about this because the people involved really meant no ill will – I’m talking about people who meet us as a couple, and immediately hug us and congratulate us on our marriage. That’s lovely, really, but we’ve been married over two years and been together for over a decade. Do you congratulate EVERY married couple you meet for being married? Or are you congratulating yourself for being cool enough to know a same sex couple? If so, get a life. Really.

See, it’s rarely meant nastily, which makes it all the harder to challenge. And this brings me to my latest irritation.
Faux wives.

At a recent and absolutely fabulous party (on a boat!), I was introduced to a very pleasant young man as my beloved’s wife. He looked at us both, eyes narrowed, and said to the Missus ‘But is she your WIFE wife, or is she just your “wife”?’ We blinked, but then I remembered how before we were married, people often referred to us as each other’s “wife”. I know other same sex couples who use the words “husband” or “wife” to denote their relationship despite not being married, particularly if they live in countries where same sex marriage isn’t an option. Personally, I feel that as long as same sex marriage exists in any form, the only people using the words “wife” and “husband” should be people who have made that legal commitment to one another. And no, a shared mortgage doesn’t count.

We looked at him a bit funny and showed him our wedding rings. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’re actually married. Well, civilized.’ (That joke never gets old. Well it does, but I’m gonna keep making it until they change the sodding wording. ‘Partnership’ my arse.)

‘Oh right!’ He said, NOT congratulating us, for which he gained valuable points. ‘I thought you might be one of those straight girls who calls their best mate their “wife”.’

Sorry, what now?

Apparently, there is a new thing where single straight girls who have a particularly close friendship with another straight girl refer to each other as their “wives”. Now that it’s been pointed out, I have noticed it on Facebook a couple of times. And isn’t that cute? ‘I don’t need a man; I’ve got my “wife”! And we’re going to have slumber parties and paint each other’s nails and drink cosmopolitans and dance provocatively with each other in nightclubs! And if that fulfills the lesbian fantasies of any eligible straight men in the vicinity, well so much the better, it improves our chances of pulling! Not that I need a man…’

Total nails down the blackboard time. Sorry. No.

After years of meaningful, valid, loving same-sex relationships being relegated to the category of ‘Um…friend’, I am damned if I am going to accept actual platonic friendships moving in on the "wife" territory. I KNOW they don’t mean it in a homophobic way; they’re just being cute, and therein lies the problem. Two women together who enjoy each other’s company and spend a lot of time together are FRIENDS. But to hear a lot of people tell it, that is the exact nature of my relationship with my wife. No, really.

Gay and bi men get a hell of a lot more hassle than queer women and are much less accepted if they hold hands or kiss in public, (notice how you don’t see straight men calling each other ‘husband?) but the flipside of that is that lesbians and bi women are much more ignored, belittled, dismissed as not ‘real’: after all, we’re just good friends, no matter what we say about loving each other and being each other’s wife – that’s the sort of thing girls say all the time, isn’t it? Really, we just want a man.

Sorry girls, if she hasn’t given you a ring, a marriage contract and at least one orgasm, she ain’t your wife.

She’s your um…friend.

Or if you really, really are more than just friends, but really, really aren’t hot for each other, may I direct you to that excellent Jay-and-Silent-Bob-ism “Hetero-Lifemate”?

Don't take “my wife”. Please. Thanks.


  1. I think you have to tell me more about "Hetero-Lifemate". WTF is that?

  2. Hi Art :)

    It's a phrase from either the film 'Dogma' or 'Jay and silent Bob Strike Back'. It refers to two people of the same who find themselves eminently well suited to spend their lives together but do not find one another sexually attractive.

  3. of the same gender, that should say....

  4. Odd one that. I'd never thought of it as more than just a metaphorical/literal confusion, or about how messy it gets once women have actual proper wives.

    But then using references to sexual relationships to express major platonic affection is old as the hills, and you do seem to be complaining about people just using a metaphor.

    Do you reckon though, as more and more women marry/civilise/"marry" other women, this wife/friend metaphor will just become unworkable and die off?

  5. Really? What other sexual relationship phrases are used to denote friendships? I honestly can't think of any. Are there any used between men? I'm not negating your point. I'm genuinely interested and can't think of any examples - my mind is a blank.

    Yeah it's a metaphor, point taken, but it's not always USED like one. It's often used straightforwardly- ' like hi, I'm Barbara this is my wife Trixie.' as well as 'Ohmigod, Trixie is TOTALLY my wife!'. I have slightly less of a problem with the latter, tacky though I find it, because it at least acknowledges that a metaphor is being used.

    But this is my problem. In itself, it's not that offensive, it's just kind of nebulously homophobic, because using the word in that sense denies the concept of same sex marriage. And this particular permutation does seem new. I think actual legal same sex wives predate it.

    That's why I fear it won't die off, because it's been inspired by the concept of same sex marriage, and, I'd argue, by the subconscious sense that two women being married is a bit of a joke.

  6. Well, maybe not people (apart from bum-chums and hetero-lifemates), but you can be married to your work, bum Iron Maiden, and heroin can be your wife as well as your life.

    I'm not convinced that it's necessarily inspired by same-sex marriage. I'd not seen it before same-sex marriage was in the news either, but it's been an issue for longer than facebook, which as far as I know was the first time you do anything like joke-register yourself as married to someone. Even if it is though, that doesn't mean it won't die off. All it needs for a joke to become unworkable is for people not to get it. If straight best friends who introduce themselves as each other's wife keep getting assumed to be actual civilised lesbians, then they'll stop, not out of embarrassment but just because the joke isn't funny and is communicating the wrong things. Bear in mind it's a lot easier to set up a platonic facebook-wife than it is to persuade another woman to become your actual wife and organise the ceremony.

    Oddly enough though, it doesn't just create confusion with same-sex pairings. I remember after my girlfriend broke up with me, I had to do the "cancel relationship" thing on facebook. One of my friends saw it, but assumed it was just one of those piss-about facebook relationships that I'd got bored of, and couldn't work out why I looked so glum.

    That's partly why I think it's a general metaphorical/literal confusion coming from the metaphorical version being a bit more common, or at least a bit more visible. As more people get civilised the balance will start to go the other way.

    What do you make of "girlfriend" for female friend, by the way?

  7. girlfriend for female friend - fine in american english. doesn't work for british english. for me, at least.

    I have no problem with phrases like 'married to my work' because there is no danger of confusion. i know that nobody is actually married to their work, whereas Barbara could actually be married to Trixie.

  8. Do you not think "girlfriend" confuses things in exactly the same way?

  9. Yes, it does. Which is why it sounds horrible and fake in a British accent. however, in certain American dialects, it's just a case of a word having multiple meanings. If a eoman, camp gay man or drag queen addressed me as 'girlfriend', I'd know they meant, like, 'fellow lady' - if that's not an oxymoron. If a woman said 'I'm going out with my girfriendS' I'd know what she meant. If she said the same but said 'girlfriend', well, I'd ask if I was confused and the context didn't make it clear, but I'd accept that it's a cultural difference. If women had been calling their best friends 'wife' since time immemorial, I'd be less bothered.

    But they haven't. It really seems to be a recent thing, and not just on facebook, because this guy we met assumed that my wife and I were in the 'faux wives club' as a matter of course, implying that he'd heard it a lot.

    The fake married thing on facebook is bloody silly, but hell, facebook persuades people to play farmville for hours on end.... People buggering about with their relationship status is only to be expected.

    1. I know a man who "married" himself on Facebook to another man, and neither to my knowledge is gay. Though I doubt they would ever introduce themselves as a couple, probably a joke that never escaped facebook. So it's not just happening amongst women.

  10. Well, according to your story, he didn't assume you were faux-wives, he didn't know what to assume and asked you to clarify, and I find it hard to blame the guy. If you have got this ambiguity floating around, it's not really your fault if you get confused. He might even have made the opposite mistake some time before - asking a couple of friends how long they'd been married, or getting confused when one of them talked about her boyfriend. Didn't want to make a tit of himself again.

    Incidentally, all this talk of girlfriends reminded me of something.

  11. Oh, not blaming the guy at all. He did the exact right thing by asking for clarification. The fact he needed to ask at all implies that this is something that happens 'IRL' as they say, not just on Facebook
    I do, however,blame his female friends for their flagrant misuse of the word 'wife', which led to the confusion.

  12. Inchrestingly, the faux-wife thing may be more widespread than just female-female pairs. I've heard it used by women to refer to a close male friend who there's not an attraction to - whether they're gay or not.

    Just to confuse things a little more. :)

  13. That's just odd. I actually give up. Straight birds, you're weird.

  14. That was in a musical theatre group though. Real life may vary!

  15. Yeah, a friend of mine once referred to a male friend as her "gay husband". She is weird though.

    I have to mildly pick you up on "misuse" though. What makes your literal usage of 'wife' any more valid or correct than their metaphorical one? Being closer to the heteronormative institution of marriage? Who died and made you the OED?

  16. I hear you, but i disagree. I'm single so maybe it's moot, but I don't feel like I need the endorsement of an exclusionary homophobic church or state in order to consider myself married, if I were in a commited ongoing relationship with someone. I might need it in order to have equal rights as a spouse, legally, but not to put some sort of official seal on what is, after all, a matter of the heart.

    As for the friend as wife thing, I had this experience a few years ago: my friend Dobby, who i felt a real connection with, and was attracted to though I knew she was straight, started calling me "Wife." I had not been clear about myself for very long, then, and in fact was not yet out to family and work, as I am now. Anyway, I found it all confusing. I liked her calling me that, but read too much into it. I had never heard it used the way you describe in your post. Naturally, she eventually married a man (good for her) and I got older and wiser. She meant no harm, in fact meant it well. But when the language being used isn't understood by everyone, it can be hard.

  17. I'm with Fireblossom! But then, we're Twins, you know.

  18. Hahaha! nobody died and made me the OED, but one of my main obsessions is the way there ISN'T a hard and fast lexicon for talking about queer (or should I say gay, or should I say LGBTetcetc?) stuff, because the words we use to describe ourselves are ALL used for something else, or used to insult, or used as a joke.

    One could argue I have no more right to the word 'gay' than the schoolkids using it as an insult, no more right to the word 'homosexual' than the doctors who used it to denote a mental illness.

    You could argue that since marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman, I have no more right to the word wife as half of a same sex couple than 2 straight girls on a night out have.

    But you see, I have campaigned for the right of gay marriage. i've marched, and written letters, and signed petitions and tried to explain what Prop 8 was to people, and I feel sooooo close.

    Yeah, TECHNICALLY, I'm a Civil Partner, not a wife. Yeah, so far, the US Government won't allow a marriage which gives me rights as the spouse of a US citizen, but I HAVE gone down to the city council with my beloved, and got the requisite piece of paper to be her LEGAL spouse.

    As a result, I feel quite possessive of a word which puts me on an equal footing with straight couples who are using the same word. Yeah, I'm partly using it to make a political point, because the fact that my marriage certificate says 'civil partnership', is a travesty. But I also use it because I find it's the most accurate way to describe our relationship.

    As with the kids in the schoolyard using 'gay' as an insult, the girls in the bar using 'wife' as a joke are doing one more thing to take away from the lexicon that the queer community can use to describe themselves without belittling themselves.

    Hell, you could all use the word 'Sarah' to refer to a pus filled cyst on your face if you like. I can't stop you - that's the beauty of language. But I'd hope that, out of sensitivity and politeness, you would not do such a thing.

  19. I'm not sure who's at fault here. I agree with you that the word 'wife' has a clear and specific meaning and that the relationship between two female friends, as described above, doesn't fit the definition. However, I think what causes this is the lack of a word that does describe the situation adequately. In my opinion, 'hetero-lifemate' is a horrible expression...and besides, what if the 'hetero' bit is a misnomer?

    I'm thinking about the relationship I've got with Hannah: boy-girl, best friends, love each other (not that I'd tell her that, obviously :P), live together, share bills and food, spend most of our free time together, associate with each other's families...the only thing that makes it different from a marriage is the complete absence of any sexual/romantic interest in either direction. Also, neither of us is straight. Hannah has been known to refer to me, jokingly, as her house-husband and I've often thought it would be easier to refer to Hannah as 'the wife' than it is to give the usual housemate-best-mate-woman-I-live-with-hobbit spiel. I don't think either of those things is demeaning to heterosexual marriage. The problem is that there genuinely isn't a word for us.

    In the case of the girls you mention, I'm not sure that using the word 'wife' is the best approach, but I don't really blame them for borrowing a word from somewhere else to describe a situation that doesn't have one of its own.

    Incidentally, for describing Hannah's place in my life, I think I've settled on 'Insignificant Other'.

  20. Hmmm.... Yeah, you do have a point, Bunbury, and it was something that was nagging at me even as I was blogging - the phrase hetero-lifemate's complete inappropriateness to your and Hannah's set up.
    I mostly like hetero-lifemate for its very ridiculousness. It reeks of the phrase 'no homo', but I suppose I give it the benefit of ironic doubt.

    Personally, I think you've got it covered with 'Trout Features and the Wizard'* ;) but I can see the dilemma. In the olden days they used to call a close platonic cohabitant a 'companion', but that does sound rather formal. I'm really not describing the kind of relationship you and Hannah have though. If you were to call Hannah your wife, I'd probably blink a few times, but as Mrs Madrigal says, 'there are all kinds of marriages, my dear'.

    A straight woman's closest platonic confidante REALLY does already have a ready made title, though.
    Can one of these women explain to me what the hell is wrong with calling each other their friend? I have friends whom I love dearly. Only call one of 'em my wife.

    *A children's book series just BEGGING to be written

  21. "Two women together who enjoy each other’s company and spend a lot of time together are FRIENDS."

    "Sorry girls, if she hasn’t given you a ring, a marriage contract and at least one orgasm, she ain’t your wife.

    She’s your um…friend."

    That kinda sounds like a big "fuck you" to homo/bi/panromantic asexuals. Which is not how it's intended, I know, but it's kinda belittling our relationships/marriages to imply they are just friendships if we don't have sex or orgasms.

  22. Good point, but in context, I was addressing the particular brand of friendship this post was looking at. (hence "sorry girls")

    There was no intent to belittle asexual marriage, and I apologise for any offense caused. I would feel, personally, that it would be more insulting to categorise heterosexual women who used the term wife to mean 'best friend' in the same bracket as asexuals in committed relationships. It never occurred to me that the latter would feel they were being addressed but I can see that my choice of words did negate the existence of 'true' asexual marriage.

    I am amused that no straight women with so called "wives" have challenged me, though.

  23. In a gross assumption of misapplied spokespersonhood (I'm a man), I'll step in to challenge you on behalf of straight women with "wives". Not because I think the usage is correct, but because all the Facebook "wives" I know are generally sound people, expressing a scarily close bond evident to anyone who sees them interact, because they're the sort of people guaranteed to abuse any aspect of social networking sites as far as they can, and because, like it or loathe it - and in the case of American-English "girlfriend" I tend to the latter - usage is usage. Culturally, it probably won't have legs.

    Still prefer the Jay-ism (though it needs an analogue for "couples" where the lack of attraction isn't due to their sexuality, only random tastes.)

    (Posted anonymously because I don't have a profile, just stumbled in when scouring the net for Edwin Morgan's "Head".)

  24. Does any of this really matter? Just seems like you are all getting het up about labels and forgive me, but when did they ever matter? Who gives a f"ck if people are calling their straight friends 'wives'? No one has the monopoly on that word. Also I would like to add that referring to your friends as 'girlfriends' is very English and something my Mother and Grandmother always did. Where do you think you Americans got your language from??? Just joking but I do really think you should go worry about something more important.