Saturday, December 15, 2007

Straight ladies of the world, give up your girlfriends

A cadre of my lesbian friends have requested that I write this post on their behalf:

Dear straight ladies of the world,

Please, PLEASE stop using the word "girlfriend" to describe your platonic, friendship-only relationships with other women.

We understand that straight people don't generally think about us. It's human nature to ignore people's issues that have no direct effect on our lives. But your continued use of the word "girlfriend" makes queer women invisible. And it really sucks.

You get to have your boyfriends. Why not let us have our girlfriends? We can't get married (except in Massachusetts), so we're stuck with lame and ambiguous descriptors for the women we love like "girlfriend" and "partner." It's tough enough as it is to get recognition for the relationships that we have when there is no overt cultural support. And when the general lexicon gives us easily misconstrued words to describe ourselves, it's an uphill climb to get noticed. You may not realize how easy you have it--as soon as you say, "boyfriend" everyone knows you're talking about the guy you sleep with.

When we are out with our partners and introduce them as our "girlfriend," it often takes several introductions for people to get it through their heads that we're talking about romance, not about our buddy.

Is it so hard to imagine that we might be a couple? We're tired of people assuming that we're genetically related sisters when, for example, one of us is clearly of Indian descent and the other is Italian. Why is being a couple the very last thing so many people think of? How many times do we have to go to our doctors, take our partner with us, and have to explain, over and over again, that this person is not just with us, but "with" us?

So, what can you, the straight lady, do? Since many names are gender-specific, why not just say, "I was out with my friend Sarah this weekend...blah, blah, blah" instead of, "I was out with my girlfriend." Or just say you were out with a friend or friends. Why qualify it at all? Get creative.

But do your queer sisters a favor and give us a chance to take hold of a word whose meaning, for us, is far more specific and truly needed.


The Lesbians of New York


shantielise said...

thank you!!!

miss weeza said...

I've never used 'girlfriend' that way, I am now pleased to say. It always seemed either redundant or overly informative to me.

While I'm on this, why does is matter whether the friend I'm hanging out with is male or female? Is this some sort of qualification meant to make our straight male partners feel less threatened?

On the other hand, a guy I was friends for years used to call all of his girlfriends (as in person you're sleeping with) 'friends', which I always found infuriatingly obtuse. He was desperately in love and in a monogamous relationship with one of these women for years and still introduced her at parties and dinners as, 'my friend Lauren.'

What d'you reckon that was all about?

Major Generalist said...

Hello Miss Weeza,
I definitely never recall you using the word "girlfriend" to describe your friends. Thanks for that!

I don't really know why people feel the need to qualify whether they are hanging out with men or women. I don't feel like it has much to do with making straight male partners feel less threatened only because so many women, single or otherwise, call their female friends, "girlfriend." Although, to your point, it would make the boys potentially feel less threatened as a possible side effect. I've had the sense that it was somehow about designating your own personal club of sorts, to somehow make your friends appear more special. It also seems to be slightly juvenile, but that might just be me.

I have no idea what was going thru your guy friend's head by his introducing his girlfriend as his friend, but I find that pretty horrifying. Even though he was with her for a long time, perhaps he still had commitment issues of some kind? I mean, you don't get much more privileged than being a straight male, so socially withholding that term of endearment seems like some sort of power play to me. Or maybe he was just that clueless...?

Rational Answers said...

I’d like to make three relatively quick points:

1) I acknowledge that I am almost completely unqualified to speak on this topic (like that would stop me).

2) In the more lesbian-intolerant African American subculture (and probably in most other largely working class subcultures), the ambiguity that you ascribe to the term "girlfriend" is useful camouflage to women who are still "on the down low" and so they are less likely to want to see it fall out of popular use by straight women.

3) My personal term of choice was always "enamorata" (but I've always been a bit of a show-off).

Major Generalist said...

Capt. Rational,
Ah! I hadn't considered that closeted women might actually be actively holding us back. Ugh! Yet another reason why living in the closet is appalling. Nothing like your own kind working against you.

Forgive me, but I can't help but ding you--it's "inamorata." ;)


miss weeza said...

1. As if closeted women didn't already cause enough trouble to the lesbian community! Grr.

2. So would that make Bert my inamorato? Correct spelling or not, I prefer enamorato/a - it looks somehow more sensual and voluptuous, without that phallic 'i' at the front. ;)

Major Generalist said...

Miss Weeza,
Yes, that makes Bert your inamorato. And I do agree, "enamorato" is sexier, and also would pull in "eros," which would make a lot more sense. Alas!

Gonzo said...

Hmm. Major Generalist has been confused in the past with my use of the term "girlfriend". I might have a hard time dropping it, but I'll give it a try. I'm not really sure why I stick 'girl' in there. After reading the post, I felt a little defensive about it, but then I realized that it isn't much to make a small change like that.

My only question - does the use of the word 'partner' by both straight and gay communities bother you?

Major Generalist said...

Hey Gonzo,

Thanks so much for your post! After I wrote the "ladies" blog post, I did consider that someone like you might find it a bit of an attack. And I suppose it can be construed that way in the manner that it's written since it's a direct request. Thank you for being open. I'm glad it didn't offend you in the end. And thank you for considering a "girlfriend" alternative. :)

As for your question, I find "partner" to be very weak at best—it suffers from the same dilution that "girlfriend" does. Are we talking about a business partner? A writing partner? A sex partner? A life partner? It's a word that demands a qualifier to be clear, and for that reason, is culturally enfeebled. On the other hand, a positive spin on "partner" is that it implies some degree of egalitarianism. It does have that going for it.

Still, any couple (straight, gay or otherwise) who refers to themselves as "partners" suffers from this ambiguity. This points out the cultural need for a word that could be applied to a couple, gay or straight, that is a lot more specific. I don't know what that word would be. The thing that makes it different from "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" is that the word "partner" is never used in a the context of friendship. No one says, "I was hanging out with my girl partners this weekend" or even, "On Wednesday, I went ambulance chasing with my partners" (unless maybe they're lawyers ). Still, it's a lot like saying "gf" or "bf" due to it's ambiguity, which is my biggest problem with the word.

Of course, straight people do have the opportunity to clear up this ambiguity by getting married and using the terms, "husband" and "wife." However, there appears to be a cultural trend where an increasing number of straight couples are choosing to live with a less formal social arrangement. There are far more straight registered domestic partners in New York than there are gay couples. And I remember reading some article about civil unions in France—once the bill was ratified, many more straight people were signing up for it than gay couples.

This speaks to some larger cultural issue that I don't fully comprehend. I can see how a socially marginalized group would seek out the cultural acceptance and legal protection that marriage affords, but I don't as readily understand why straight couples would opt for fewer legal rights. Regardless of my own personal feelings on the subject, which are mixed, the situation exists where a meaningful word is needed by both the straight and gay community to recognize their "significant other" in a way that isn't so stilted.

miss weeza said...

See, now you've hit on a pet peeve of mine - the 'P' word. I really hate using 'partner' to describe my relationship with my boyfriend - I find it ambiguous in all the ways you mentioned, and I also find it lukewarm and cowardly. However, I'm also less than happy with boyfriend/girlfriend. Maybe I'm just going syntactically crazy now, but isn't there a certain flippancy implied by the use of 'boy' and 'girl'? Funnily enough, I don't mind being called Bert's girlfriend, but sometimes when I refer to him as my boyfriend I feel like the word doesn't carry enough gravity.

I think we need new terminology. I don't see why people (gay or straight) should have to enter into contractual arrangements in order to speak in serious terms about their relationship.

Or is it that I'm so entrenched in the seriousness of marriage that I'm blaming the syntax for my own old-fashioned-ness?


Major Generalist said...

Miss Weeza,
I kind of figured you probably weren't too into "partner," and I have to agree with you that the term smacks of a kind of cowardice. And I completely agree that calling someone "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" recalls high school (and who wants to think about that? har). It's definitely a little infantilizing.

I think you're on to something when you say that legal entanglement should perhaps be separated from identifying our emotional commitment to a person. But then that really calls into question why we need such a separation. (And as I said earlier, clearly we do because culture is demonstrating this need by an increasing lack of formal marriage.)

Is it about being able to take a middle step from dating to living together to being married? Is there a little bit of commitment phobia in all of this? Is it a chance to try on a hat and more easily remove it if it doesn't fit, so to speak? And where is the line between living together and marriage, emotionally? And at what point does it make sense to create a legal union? I'm asking these questions generally--not to you personally.

But speaking personally, what's interesting to me is that I've always assumed that when I meet the person I decide to pair up with on a presumably permanent basis, I will call her my wife regardless of whether society officially lets me marry. I've never really thought, for me personally, that I'd need any other language than "girlfriend" or "wife" because I've presumed, for myself, that it will only be one or the other. Of course, I may find myself in a relationship where I question my binary options for referring to mon petit chou. ;) Who knows? It's better to have multiple options out there than greater restrictions, so regardless of my personal behavior, any additional words or legal rights for non-traditional relationships can only help my cause.

Our world is increasingly complex. Or maybe it's that we're slowly starting to be more honest and admit, as a society, that there is a lot of ambiguity out there. Our language is struggling to catch up with our many different social needs, which also means that we will need some legal changes as well.

Consider that miscegenation wasn't legal in the United States until 1967. 1967!!!! This is mind-blowing! It was only 40 years ago. Good God. How relationships will change, lexically or legally, is impossible to predict, but I have no doubt that there will be significant alterations in how we refer to and legally create relationships in the next 30-50 years.

miss weeza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miss weeza said...

Sorry for the deleted post, I accidentally published mid-draft...

I think maybe part of the problem is that a lot of the straight community (caution: major projection ahead) is disillusioned with the institution of marriage. This takes many forms - from rejecting the religious aspects and/or conflicts that might arise (my family's Lutheran, you're an atheist; that sort of thing), to rejecting the general societal cynicism about the whole deal. People don't seem to take marriage very seriously anymore, so why buy into the institution? The divorce rate these days is ridiculous (I'm aware that I'm part of it, and that being married didn't help that relationship one bit).

And there's also the aspect of the commitment itself, which you rightly brought up. For me, it's not about a middle step, really - I don't see any emotional line between the current state of my relationship and marriage. Some do, for sure, and I'm sure commitment-phobia plays a big part, but I'm pretty sure not for me. My thing is, if we're in a committed relationship in the eyes of ourselves, our friends and our family, then why do we need a piece of paper saying that the state (or the church) endorses that union? Marriage, the institution, seems to be more about the division of property than about the union of souls. Which is of course the point of a legal relationship - perhaps the very nature of society and legislation these days requires more emphasis on the nuts and bolts and less on the people.

Which brings me back to the same point as you, Major... do we need new terminology, or do we just use what exists and supply our own positive subtext? I'm against marriage, or the idea of having a husband (I do like that word). I could easily see it happening. But I bristle at the idea that I have to buy into a social/legal construct that seems a bit broken to me in order to be able to describe my relationship in a public, grown-up, clear way.

- the Colonel
[trying and failing to resist the urge to type 'Finger-Lickin' Good!']

Major Generalist said...

It's human nature to want what we don't have, so it makes psychological sense to me that gay people want the legitimacy of marriage. It seems either ironic or somehow appropriate that many straight people no longer want what they have access to. There's a dynamic at play here of opposing cultural forces that really adds to the richness and complexity of culture.

I do totally understand disillusionment with marriage, especially since so many people have witnessed the divorce of their own parents. But, I personally am very hung up on the legal rights of marriage. I certainly don't wish to be someone's chattel or have them be mine or any of the the other implied inequalities one might ascribe to marriage, but at the same time, I would love to be able to pass on my estate (someday when I have one) to someone that I love without them incurring absolutely horrific taxation costs because they are not my legal spouse. If I could marry, my estate would automatically pass to them without extra tax burdens. And there are over 1000 rights conferred to legally married couples that unmarried couples are not privy to.

And think about medical coverage in the US. Anyone who is using domestic partnership to attain their medical coverage is paying for it AFTER TAXES. If a couple is married, they get a pre-tax break on their health care coverage costs, which is about a 28% savings (for those who fall into that tax bracket). This is a big deal!

If laws became more egalitarian in general, that might satisfy me enough to not see a need for the legalized institution of marriage for gay people, or for anyone. This year, the law was changed so that you can now designate any beneficiary for your 401k. Previously, it would automatically roll over to your spouse, and anyone else you left your 401k to would incur more legal taxation.

I think this law is actually better than something that might be directed just at gay people—this law lets anyone designate any beneficiary with fewer tax liabilities. This is fantastic! Hell, I may never actually meet the partner of my dreams. I'd love to see my savings go to my sister, for example, without her having to give up cashola. So, I suppose the more laws that support a person's individual choices, the better. That's really what I suppose I'm most of in favor of.

This conversation is bringing to mind something a friend said to me. He and his partner have been together for over ten years. I'm paraphrasing, but basically, he said that the fact that they are not married means that they can't rest on their laurels, and that they constantly and consistently have to make a choice to stay together because they can't just fall back into the safety net of marriage. As a result, their relationship is stronger. And inspirational message for sure.

And, OMG, Colonel. Finger licking good. YIKES!! I can't stop laughing!!!!

miss weeza said...

You know, I've only been back in the UK for 3 years and I'm already taking for granted the difference in rights here. I don't know if there is specific reference to the gender of the partners [shudder] involved, but life insurance policies, medical care, pensions etc. are all transferrable (or provide coverage for) domestic partners, regardless of marital (or gender, presumably) status.

Admittedly, I haven't looked into what the legal benefits would be if Bert and I were married, but I do think that if things were substantively different to what they are - if I couldn't extend the medical care I get through my new employer to him, for instance, or name him as the beneficiary on my life insurance/estate, I would be a lot keener to tie the legal knot.

I can completely understand your frustration. It's ridiculous that a union between consenting adults isn't recognised by the Powers That Be when it's between two members of the same sex. Particularly when the grounds for not recognising same-sex unions are largely religious (the word 'moral' sure does cover a lot of sins, so to speak), in a country where the separation of church and state is written into the ground rules.


I'm sorry, Major. It's shit. Come over here, we'll take good care of you. ;)

Jami said...

you know, i never thought about it before. i will make a concerted effort to just use "friend." the rest of the conversation is too heady for my feeble brain at the moment, but thanks for bringing the thought to my attention!