“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” the minister said to Anthony and me 22 years ago. Although I was thrilled about what we were undertaking, I cringed. Being pronounced a “wife” felt archaic and just plain weird. I went with it, squeamish but thankful that at least we’d gotten past the days of “man” and wife.
Years later, though, I was still dodging the vocabulary. “I’m Margot,” I’d say, “and this is my, um, partner, Anthony.”
For our first decade of marriage, Anthony and I employed traditional spouse words only from a distance born of snark:
“Hey Husband, can you use your big strong hands to get the lid off this jar?”
“Hello, Wife. How are you this fine day?”
Anthony and I loved each other. We married each other. We snuggled in front of the television and created three children and balanced the checkbook. We’d embraced the whole package.
So why couldn’t we speak the vocabulary of our institution with sincerity?
For me, marriage-role terminology carried too much baggage of a history I didn’t want. Although I could imagine the pride with which a new bride might have worked the words “my husband” into every sentence 60 years ago, I couldn’t get there myself. Instead, “wife” smacked of “old ball and chain.” And don’t even get me started on the fact that the word “husband” had no negative colloquial equivalents.
For years I tried alternatives, hoping to convey a modern sensibility. At various times I was a “partner,” a “co-parent,” a “best-friend-who-also-shared-his-bed.” But I always felt as if I were stealing – either from my gay and lesbian friends who were denied use of the words I was eschewing, or from braver, nonconforming straights.
Eventually we adopted the language. Anthony and I are trundling through our third decade together, and for the past several years I’ve introduced him as “my husband.” It feels fine. But until recently, the word didn’t come trippingly to my tongue, a fact I didn’t quite notice until my gay friends started serving up giant, nonironic helpings of the vocabulary I had so long avoided.
No threat to my marriage
In the years that led up to Washington State’s vote on R74 last November, a referendum that would legalize same-sex marriage, I was adamant that my marriage was in no way threatened by someone else’s. I never got the logic of how anyone’s marriage could defile mine. But I also didn’t anticipate that, in taking on the words of the institution, same-sex couples would bring those terms back, refreshed, to me.
We Washington residents, gay and straight, passed R74 on Nov. 6.
No one could accuse gays of being stuck in a tired paradigm or of following old habits and expectations. They were using the lexicon of traditional marriage not as I had, to poke fun and create distance, but in the spirit of the vows they now got to speak. I watched in wonder as my friends claimed the words “husband” and “wife” with reverence and delight and gusto.
On Dec. 6, when our city stayed awake to watch the first licenses being sought, we all gathered. We came to the courthouse at midnight to celebrate the couples who wanted to make it official the first second they could.
My friends stayed up all night in a festival of appreciation for being allowed to inhabit roles I had spoken of with boredom and irony.
Anthony and I went to our first legal gay wedding on Sunday, Dec. 9. The requisite three days after being licensed, the grooms said “husband” to each other, and it gave us all chills. For them to take a husband, for real and for true, in the eyes not just of God but of everybody, was indeed a gift.
There was no creepy ownership connotation for these friends. Which made me wonder: Why had there been for me? I use possessive pronouns for people all the time. My children and I, my friends and I, my husband and I – we belong to each other. I cherish that belonging.
Leaving language behind
The language of marriage may have come to me with baggage, but I had carried that baggage forward myself. And I also can leave behind the images of balls, chains, housedresses. Husbands and wives can be blessings to each other. And the passage of marriage equality has, for me, reimbued those terms with their right and proper significance.
What an honor, to have a husband.
What a joy, to be a wife.
To my same-sexing pals, let me say this: I know my inability to use a set of words without irony is nothing compared to the history of our society not allowing you to be those things. I apologize in advance for the accusations we all know will keep flying from the mouths of some: charges you have somehow unsanctified the marriage institution.
But please know that for this churchgoing heterosexual, with her kids, dog, car pools and yellow house with picket fence, you resanctified it. Please know you revived it. Please know that when I hear you pronounce the words “wife” and “husband” so reverently, so lovingly, I remember that I can, too.