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Why I Refer to My Husband, My Romantic Partner, and My Life Companion as My Mate

Even though I don't identify as a furry.
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(Photo: Rock and Wasp/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Rock and Wasp/Shutterstock)

After an essay of mine on talking to kids about sex went viral last week, someone tweeted me an unexpected question: “Just read an article in which you refer to your partner as Mate. Are you furry?”

In case you don’t know what a furry is, the questioner was asking whether the mate and I are into a particular kind of romance that involves dressing up as anthropomorphized animal characters and, well, mating.

No, I’m not making this up. It’s real, although as with being straight or gay, it’s not just about sex. It’s also about fashions and group interests and identity and blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, no, we’re not furry. The mate would not want me to tell you what we are into, but let’s just say he once used an Excel spreadsheet on me in a way that had me asking for more of Column G. Lots, lots more of Column G. Normally, I’m not a Microsoft fan, but sex does weird things to you. Recognizing this, I try not to cast any stones when it comes to other consenting adults’ preferences.

But since there was apparently a whole Reddit thing about why I call the mate “the mate,” I thought I’d explain.

Dan Savage addressed the gay marriage apartheid problem earlier than most, when he took to referring to his mate Terry as "the HICBIA," meaning his "husband in Canada, boyfriend in America."

Almost 20 years ago, I became good friends with a woman who did me the favor of pointing out the ways in which our lives differed in terms of privilege, because she’s lesbian and I’m straight. She asked me if I would do something for her: not refer to Aron (my mate) as “my husband” until she could legally refer to her mate as “my wife.”

As a consequence, I took to calling Aron “my partner.” This was a few years after Andrew Sullivan had brought the idea of gay marriage to the straight mainstream, but it was still well before same-gender marriage had made any legal inroads. So there was little consciousness among my fellow heterosexuals about how our lives were different because we could say “my husband” or “my wife.”

My use of “my partner” immediately confused everybody around me, which is just what my friend had wanted. I remember that, in the mid-'90s, when I was teaching at a Midwestern university and I would refer to “my partner Aron,” my classroom would suddenly buzz. The students would sometimes just stop to ask me who I was talking about. Was it my business partner? My research partner? Did I identify as a cowgirl or something? Well yeah, but....

“No,” I’d answer, “I’m talking about my life companion, my romantic partner.”

At this, they would often decide that I was talking about “Erin,” because that name sounded like “Aron” and because I must be talking about a woman if I used “partner” and not “husband.” But this again confused them because they were sure they were hearing me use the male pronoun for my partner.

A similar thing happened to Aron when I put rainbow stickers on our cars. The staff where he works cornered him at the office one day, and one of them stepped forward to finally ask the big question the whole group had: “Are you the original owner of your vehicle?”

Rainbow stickers, “partner”—these confused everybody who thought (correctly) that we were both straight. So I started hanging rainbow flags at every straight house that would let me, and consistently kept using “partner.”

But then, as gay rights and the number of “out” people increased, a problem came up. When I’d run into LGBT people and I’d refer to “my partner,” they’d immediately assume I was one of them. So then I would feel deceptive. I’d also worry that maybe they thought I was trying to make some claim to the oppression they’d experienced. So then I would switch between “my partner” and “my husband.” Naturally, some concluded I must be poly.

Things got even more complicated when gay marriage started—finally—to become legally possible. The promise I had made my friend was to use “partner” until gay people could say “my wife” or “my husband.” Now some of my friends could say it! Now I found myself wanting to say “my husband” specifically in order to re-inject heterosexual power into “husband,” so that gay men could shoot a gun I was helping to reload.

But we live in Michigan, where, although guns are way too legal, gay marriage isn’t yet exactly totally legal. Some of our gay friends got married a few weeks ago, when doing so was momentarily legal. But then some judge did something—look, I’m not going to pretend to understand it—and now their marriages are in legal limbo waiting for some higher courts to figure it out.

Dan Savage addressed the gay marriage apartheid problem earlier than most, when he took to referring to his mate Terry as "the HICBIA," meaning his “husband in Canada, boyfriend in America.” Terry is now legally Dan’s husband, at least in Washington state, where they got married (again). But I’m still not sure when I’m talking to Dan how I should refer to my mate. Maybe I should go by which state Dan and I are in when we’re talking? But what if we’re interstate phoning?

Maybe I should just for now call Aron “the HICPIA,” for “husband in Canada, partner in America”? Except that makes it sound like he has some medical problem where when he hiccups, he has to pee. For the record, we’re not into that, either.

I suppose in my writing, I could just refer to the mate by his name, but that would still require me saying what his relationship is to me. Husband? Spouse? Partner? And as long as marriage rights are in flux, that means I’m forced to figure out how to pick a term that (a) acknowledges the political alliance I feel with people who are stopped from marrying the people they love; (b) doesn’t make a claim to privilege I don’t deserve or oppression I haven’t experience; and (c) doesn’t confuse my readers.

I somehow thought “the mate” would do all that. “Mate” has the advantage of capturing all of what Aron is to me: companion, lover, friend, sex partner, sire to my child. But apparently that term just leaves the furries confused.

I think that, if nothing else moves the Supreme Court to finally make same-gender marriage a federally recognized right, this should really be it. I’m confused. My students are confused. The furries are confused.

Maybe Aron and I should file an amicus brief about all this. Those get presented in Excel, right?