THE BLOG
02/13/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Do 'Husband' and 'Wife' Matter?

So the AP strikes again. Back in November, the organization that sees its style guide as the journalist's bible telegraphed that the forthcoming edition would discourage the use of the term "homophobia." Now the AP is restricting the use of the terms "husband" and "wife" for legally married same-sex couples. According to the leaked internal memo quoted this week on AMERICAblog, the AP explains, "Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms ('Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones') or in quotes attributed to them." Otherwise, their policy is to use "partners," whether the people are joined in a civil union or legal marriage. This "separate but equal" terminology and its justification are ludicrous! Would the AP care if legally married opposite-sex couples did not use the terms "husband" or "wife" to describe each other? If a legally married same-sex couple preferred other terms, would the AP use those? By dressing their decision up in an insincere concern for what the couples themselves use, the AP is merely shielding the discomfort and bigotry behind their decision.

But with everything else going on in the world today, do "husband" and "wife" really matter? The answer is yes. They really do. The mutually constitutive relationship between language and society means that these types of decisions matter. Language reflects society, yes, but society is also constructed through language. Our identities do not simply exist as static, immutable and self-evident realities. Each day, in each interaction we have, and in each text we write, we talk our identities, our communities, our societies into being. When we use terms that are different for what should, legally, be the same, we are talking inequality into being -- over and over and over again.

Change is hard. Change can be disorienting and uncomfortable. I understand this on a deeply personal level.

When my stepfather, who always runs into people he knows wherever we go, was confronted with the problem of how to introduce my wife Heather, who was my fiancée at the time, he introduced her as my "friend." Later, he asked me if this was OK, and I, feeling uncomfortable and unsure, as well as genuinely touched by his concern, assured him that it was. To be fair, I had never broached the subject of what to call her with him or any of my family, and he is from a different generation that never could have imagined the changes that have taken place in recent decades with regard to marriage equality. My stepfather and my mother, as well as my father and Heather's parents, all attended our wedding in October, and we could not ask for more love and acceptance from our families, but changing how we talk about who we are can be difficult.

In fact, to be completely honest, I have to admit that this terminology question has been hard for me, too. Prior to our wedding, when referring to Heather, I almost always used the term "partner" rather than "fiancée," because the latter term just sounded too traditional, too corny and too straight. Now that we are newlyweds, married in the great state of Massachusetts, where marriage equality has been law since 2004, I am using the term "wife." But, to be honest, it does not exactly roll off my tongue. I use the term consciously and politically, even though it still feels slightly foreign to me, as if I don't quite have the right to use it. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I use the term consciously and politically because it feels slightly foreign to me, like I shouldn't have the right to use it, because I could not have imagined the changes that I have witnessed in recent decades, and I never dreamed that I would ever be able to marry legally the person that I loved or have someone that I could call my wife.

Perhaps this is why the AP is scared of using the terms "husband" and "wife" in text that is not attributed speech -- its seems like a political act. Refusing to use the terms, however, is also a political act that reinforces inequality even where marriage equality has to some extent been achieved. If the AP is concerned primarily with accurately reflecting what terms "those involved" actually use amongst themselves, would they recommend using the terms "husband" and "wife" for couples who, though not legally married, regularly use those terms to refer to each other? I know plenty of same-sex couples who have had beautiful ceremonies to pledge their lives to each other, some of whom have even legally changed their last names, and who refer to each other as "husband" or "wife." I doubt that the AP would use anything other than "partners" in these cases, so the naming practice of "those involved" is a cover for their regressive choice in the name of -- what? -- neutrality? Accuracy?

The AP is wrong. Their refusal to use the terms "husband" and "wife" for legally married same-sex couples is wrong, and they will, in the not too distant future, be embarrassed by the choices they are making and imposing on journalists today.

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