DEAR MISS MANNERS: Not so long ago, when only heterosexual marriages were publicly recognized, society had easily understood terms for a person’s spouse. A lady’s spouse was her “husband,” while a gentleman’s spouse was his “wife.”
Thus, I could easily introduce a couple as “John Smith and his wife, Mary Jones,” or “Mary Johnson and her husband, William Johnson.”
However, with the advent of same-sex marriages, I sometimes find myself at a loss as to the correct form of introduction. Is each gentleman in a same-sex marriage the “husband” of the other, with each lady in a similar relationship the “wife” of her spouse?
Or alternately, is a gentleman’s spouse his “wife” regardless of the spouse’s gender, and a lady’s spouse likewise her “husband”?
I recognize that the equality or inequality of forms has taken on substantial symbolic importance these days. I would like to treat all couples with equal courtesy, but our traditional language creates ambiguities when applied to our new circumstances.
GENTLE READER: No, it doesn’t. A married male is a husband and a married female is a wife, just as two male parents are both fathers and two female parents both mothers.
Please don’t make trouble. Miss Manners is still weary from the emotion-laden battles over designations for couples who are not married. Perhaps “partner” is not the best solution (because it also describes a business relationship), but it is better than the explicit, overly cute or puzzling terms that were being suggested.
At any rate, it is now generally understood: “partners,” unmarried; “husband” and “wife,” married. Using any other terms for legally married same-sex couples would appear to cast doubt on their status and throw them back into the partner category.
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