Husbands, wives, and other queer categories

—Arlene Stein

A few weeks ago, the man who washed my hair in a beauty parlor—he was perhaps 30—nonchalantly referred to the person he shares a home with as his “husband.”  That term, along with “wife” and “fiance” are rolling off the tongues of more and more people I encounter, suggesting that “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” and “partner” or “lover,” may soon be quaint reminders of an age before gays and lesbians could marry.

For most of us the urge to be married is not about changing the world, but about gaining access to the same rights, privileges, and social affirmation that coupled, middle class people enjoy in this country. Because of the centrality of marriage in our culture—as a route to gaining decent health care, inheritance rights, and community membership—I can’t begrudge anyone for wanting that.

Even in relatively liberal parts of the country, such as the suburban New Jersey town where I lived for many years, we’re still marginalized.

When our son was in middle school, he was asked to fill out forms that asked him for his mother’s name, his father’s name, and their respective telephone numbers. Lewis brought that form home, and placed Nancy’s name in the space for “mother,” and where it asked for information about “father,” he crossed out the word “father” and wrote in “mother” with my name next to it.

Lesbian mothers across the nation similarly report that when they’re out in public their children are frequently queried: “Who’s your daddy?”

Today, top-rated television shows feature gay (and to a lesser extent, lesbian characters), and many of the culture war battles I describe in my book Shameless have subsided—for the moment. But we’re not yet intelligible according to the codes of the culture.

When heteronormativity rules, queer intimacies are often read through a heterosexual lens, transforming sexual and affectional ties into biological ones, effacing the nature of gay and lesbian relationships. This is particularly troublesome for children of same-sex couples, along with non-biological parents, because it de-legitimates the bond that produced the child—and delegitimates the child, too.

No wonder marriage is so attractive to many queer people today. It would accord many of us instant recognition, belonging and ease, furthering what some have described as the “normalization” of homosexuality.

Yet I can’t help but think about those who are left out of the wedding party: single people, people whose material circumstances prevent them from marrying, and couples who choose, for any number of reasons, not to do so. That’s why, for my own part, I’ll continue to the use “girlfriend” or “partner” to describe my significant other, blurring the distinction between those who marry, and those who do not.

Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of Shameless: Sexual Dissidence in American Culture (NYU Press, 2006). You can follow Arlene Stein on Twitter @SteinArlene. She blogs at

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