February 27, 2013

IconI now pronounce you wife and wife: Associated Press guidelines for same-sex marriage amended

It was about this time last year. My wife and I were sitting down with Juliet Wilson, our Humanist celebrant, going over the ceremony we had written together.

On our wedding day. Photograph: Tamara Lakeman.

There had been some tears, a lot of laughter, and we were very happy with what we’d put together. It felt like a perfect way to take the next step in our relationship. It was all going very well until we got right to the end. I now pronounce you…erm, what?

Suddenly, there on a couch in a stranger’s house, it became painfully clear that there wasn’t a script to follow, no hundreds of years of tradition to lead the way and that Sarah and I, like thousands of another couples that have embarked on the same journey, were carving our own path.

It was intensely liberating but equally scary and the fact was this: we didn’t know what word to use.

I felt really uncomfortable with the word wife. It felt awkward in my mouth and sounded silly when it came out. I now pronounce you…wife and wife? No thanks.

For me, this tiny word carried a huge weight of negativity. This person said it all: “When I hear the word, I’m immediately hit with a wave of connotations: wedding dresses, Father of the Bride, housework, husbands, love?, divorce, yoga class, soccer mom, supermom, second, _____’s wife, loss of identity, work, swap, wedding rings, diamonds, trophies, gold diggers, happily ever after, proposals, the second shift, First Lady, the 1950s, partnership, ownership, equality?, and many, many, more things.”

I, too, was struggling to work through all of my ‘wife baggage’ but the problem was compounded by the fact that I had been programmed by society for twenty odd years to believe that a woman couldn’t have a wife.

Same-sex relationships have been around in some form or another for a gazillion years, but while parliament debate whether or not we should be allowed the right to marry, language is stuck in traffic half way across town, desperately trying to catch up, and all the horn-honking in the world doesn’t seem to be helping.

On the day, as we stood in front of our family and friends, Juliet declared that Sarah and I were partners for life. It might have been an awkward compromise (partners in crime didn’t seem appropriate) but as we walked down the aisle to rapturous applause from our most important people, the only word that mattered was love.

Jen Christensen, NLGJA president agrees that “there are no established terms” for civil unions and that the language is still evolving. But it became clear in the days, weeks and months following our wedding, wife was the word I defaulted to. No longer did it feel clumsy or heavy in my mouth; it was said it with a smile.

I realised that as marriage is in a process of evolution, so is the word wife. It doesn’t carry the same baggage for me that it once did. Now, it means to love and be loved, to be equal and to be responsible for someone else’s heart.

Welcome news, then, that Associated Press have backed down and are changing their guidelines in the way they refer to same-sex couples.

Gone are those horrible quotation marks strangling the words husband and wife or a lesser alternative. Instead, they have agreed that those terms should be used in reference to any legally recognised marriage, regardless of gender.

It might seem like a fairly innocuous move, but that view is to completely misunderstand the value of language and the importance that words can have on a person’s identity and sense of self. A relatively small detail though it might be, it has massive significance, reaffirming the social hierarchy between same-sex and mixed-sex relationships.

A couple of months ago, my father-in-law was introducing us to some of his friends. “This is my daughter, Sarah,” he said, “and her…partner, Carrie”. Why did he choose partner rather than wife?

Afterwards, he explained that he wasn’t sure which word to go for because he didn’t know what we would be comfortable with. It struck me then that we were actually very lucky. I know there are lots of heterosexual married women that hate the connotations of being a wife, but like it or not, that’s what they are in the eyes of the world. I can’t imagine many father-in-laws sitting down and asking them what terms they prefer.

Carving your own path is difficult, but it’s much better than being tied by tradition. Our wedding was our own, from the vows to the vocabulary.

Because there were no expectations on us, we were able to mix and match aspects of tradition (we asked our Dad’s to walk us down the aisle for our Humanist ceremony) with innovation (we asked our Mum’s to walk us down the aisle on the day of our legal ceremony).

Our gay brothers share the same problem. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell in Modern Family, said: “I didn’t grow up thinking I’d ever have a husband or someone I married. I didn’t know it was available to me as an option. But I think something happens when you meet someone that you love so much. The word “husband” is no longer an awkward word to say because it’s the only word that’s even possible.

“When I was in my early twenties and met people who introduced to me to their husband or partner, it felt awkward to me. I was like “What’s wrong with boyfriend?” That seemed fine to me. I’ve realized, now that I’m on the other side of the relationship, that when it’s that important to you, “boyfriend” is just not going to cut it. It’s not enough. It’s almost disrespectful to the relationship and the connection.”

When same-sex marriage finally passes into law in the UK, language is likely to have caught up and that awkwardness that some of us feel using words like wife will have dissipated. That’s a pretty good present, as wedding anniversary gifts go.

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Carrie Lyell

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