What Should I Call My Husband-Wife?

Feb 17 at 6am
By Michelle Tea

For our wedding, my person and I decided to ask a good friend to marry us. There were a few reasons for the selection; our friend was famously grumpy, and marriage – gay marriage in particular – really got her grump rumpled. She wished homos would put their efforts toward less bourgeois activity, and was bitter about her own failed gay marriage. She was also a poet, prone to sentimental weeping, with a humorous presence reminiscent of Fozzie Bear. I told her that working-class queers were going to be getting hitched every bit as much as the upwardly mobile, and begged her to become a minister online so she could tie our knot. Being a good friend, she acquiesced, penning a stunning speech about the history of queer liberation and eking out a few of those sentimental tears we’d hoped for. She stood behind us, beneath the sagging chuppah, her eyes moist as my beloved and I spoke our vows, promising to be super extra excellent to one another for the rest of our lives. We kissed shyly before our friends and family, then looked to our reluctant officiant for the final words. “I now pronounce you…” The phrase hung in the air, truncated, and we all waited to see what my love and I were about to become.

The question of what to call my totally masculine female partner (partner – ech!) had begun surfacing a month before our wedding. My sister had inquired about what her children, my fiancée’s future niece and nephew, should call Dashiell after we were hitched. I was “Auntie Michelle” and my sister did her best to enforce the formality, having sweet memories of our own aunties. I knew Dashiell wouldn’t be an auntie. Her hair is military-short and blocky men’s eyeglasses sit on her angular face. She leaves for work each morning in a button-down, sometimes a tie, sometimes not. Always men’s pants, and wingtips, a cardigan. She looks like a guy – like a superhot male model, and I often accompany her into the ladies’ room, ready to put out any “man in the ladies room!” fires that her presence might spark. Female titles feel so wrong with Dashiell, and pronouns are confusing – I often find myself calling her “he” without meaning to. She doesn’t mind. It doesn’t fit her perfectly, but neither does “she.” Like so many people whose bodies, minds, and aesthetics exist in between our two-party gender system, her current options suck. While there is a real effort among genderqueers to institute the unisex pronouns ze and hir, they sound a little too sci-fi for us. Other androgynes opt for the gender-neutral “they,” which does the trick but also suggests multiple personalities. When I write about Dashiell and when I speak to her or about her, I slip in and out of masculine and feminine pronouns, and that’s pretty much fine.

It took months to come around to it, but Dashiell decided that she’d simply like the kids to call her “Dashiell.” Great. Next came the question from our officiant: “What do you want to be pronounced as? You know, in place of husband and wife? Or, do you want husband and wife?” The question was a good one. And a tough one, one that Dashiell and I had both seen coming and had been casually avoiding. It wasn’t just a matter of what would be said at our wedding, it was a question of what we would call one another once the rings were on our fingers.

“Can you say, ‘I now pronounce you each other’s person forever?’” I asked, knowing as I said it that it sounded totally weird and awkward, maybe what a beloved pet would call their gentle master. I did like referring to Dashiell as my person, and she did the same; many nights, snuggled on the couch, one of us would spontaneously turn to the other and proclaim, “You’re my person!” delighting in the way we belonged to one another. But “person” sounded both too intimate and too cutesy. Still, as the wedding drew near, neither of us had come up with anything better.As excited as we were to actually get married, part of me felt reluctant to leave this period of engagement, for purely semantic reasons. “Fiancée” had been blissfully gender-neutral. To strangers I could refer to Dashiell as my fiancée, and if they then jumped to “he” or “husband” I could say, “Oh, my fiancée is female but she’s more like a boy than a girl” – but then I would miss the simplicity of using just fiancée.

“I now pronounce you . . .” Dashiell and I looked up at our friend, all of us with sweet-weepy faces. “Married!” Our guests all cheered. Good one! And so we were. “You’re not my wife,” I said to Dashiell, later. I scrunched my face and shook my head. “I’m the wife.” Thinking of us as one another’s wives made me think of those cheesy gown-wearing twinsie bridal cake-toppers on a lezzie wedding cake. Even though I know there are women out there marrying one another in matching dresses, that completely misses the mark for Dashiell and me, making her gender – and hence, her self – invisible, and making my queer, femme desire invisible as well.

Dashiell did feel like my husband, but the word had too much manly baggage for her to be comfortable with it. There was “spouse,” a word from government forms that reminded me of the tiny plastic pegs in the Game of Life board game. “Partner” had been so absorbed by hetero liberals that saying it suggested I was married to a stay-at-home dad who campaigned for Green Party candidates and had a feminist blog. Plus, the roots of  “partner” are in the bullshit domestic partner option homophobe politicians once pushed for in lieu of actual marriage. Plus, its neutrality sounded neutered to me – blah, bland, redolent of linty, sexless marriages.

I hit on our somewhat goofy, imperfectly perfect word accidentally on the phone with the lab at our hospital. I got my thyroid levels checked earlier that day but had forgotten to bring my insurance card, so called back later to provide my info. I recited the numbers and spelled out Dashiell’s name, the primary insured person. “Relationship?” the receptionist asked.

“Huh?”

“What is your relationship to the card holder?”

“Oh, uh, husband-wife,” I said. “We’re married.”

Husband-wife? Husband-wife! The receptionist didn’t miss a beat and I hung up the phone laughing. I started calling her husband-wife as a joke, making fun of my telephone flub, but it’s become my go-to word when introducing the topic of my significant other to folks I don’t know. Any confusion is swiftly cleared up with “She’s female but she’s more like a guy.” Boom.

As we gear up for another round of in vitro fertilization, the question of what our future baby will call Dashiell is likely to come up again. “Mom” doesn’t work, and like “husband,” “Dad” is just a little too manly for her to connect with. We’ve been scouring the Internet, looking for names other cultures have had for the father role in parenting duos; so far in the lead is Baba, which has been used by lots of different people to refer to both male and female family members.


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