I woke up with a start last night in the midst of a weirdly hallucinatory dream (about rats--BIG rats--running around a deserted campus somewhere, among the shredded remains of academic robes and leftover commencement food),* to find that my window fan had unaccountably stopped working. It didn't seem broken, but I couldn't get it to turn back on. Disoriented and disturbed by all this, I couldn't fall back asleep for a while, and so, lying there in the overly-warm dark, I somehow started thinking about that word, "partner."
And I'm wondering: when, exactly, did "partner" become the standard generic term for one's significant other? And IS it standard outside of academia?
When I started grad school, I had certainly encountered "partner" as a term for a long-time homosexual companion, although all my actual gay friends preferred "boy/girlfriend" or "lover." But when a faculty member, whom we all knew to be married (his wife was then at another institution some 1,000 miles away), occasionally spoke of his "partner," my classmates and I were completely flummoxed. We discussed it among ourselves. We'd met his wife. He'd introduced her as his wife. So . . . this partner person: who was it?
We gradually came to the conclusion that he must be referring to his wife, although I'm pretty sure that at least one of my colleagues continued to harbor the secret suspicion that said faculty member actually had an acknowledged lover (male or female) in addition to his wife.
And I remember, at the time, thinking that it was a sensible term for a spouse, and that it was an even more sensible generic term for a significant other--equally applicable to gay or straight, married or unmarried--but his usage still seemed forced, and it didn't enter my own vocabulary.
A couple of years later, a young, aggressively hip assistant professor spoke (God bless him) in favor of grad student unionization on the grounds that grad students aren't children and should be able to make their own decisions about what's best for them and their families, rather than trusting in the benevolent paternalism of the university. "Grad students have spouses," he said, "they have partners, they have children."
It was around this time that I started using the word myself--awkwardly at first, and then more comfortably--to describe unmarried but committed couples of any sexual orientation. Not coincidentally, I and many of my friends were finding ourselves in just such relationships, and as we entered our 30s and some of them starting buying houses together it seemed increasingly silly, not to mention dismissive, to speak of their boyfriends or girlfriends as if he were on the football team and she were wearing his class ring on a chain around her neck. Gradually, too, I realized that it was a brilliant way of avoiding making assumptions about marital status OR sexuality: "Oh. . . he commutes from Boston! Does he have a partner there?"
The term also allows one to avoid the heteronormative associations of "husband" and "wife," which do carry a certain amount of baggage, instead emphasizing the ideas of equality, partnership and joint enterprise. (I've always liked the term "spouse" for this reason, too: in elementary school my best friend's parents were German immigrants, and they addressed each other this way in charmingly and affectionately accented English: "Oh, Spouse! Can you come here, sweetheart?")
But although I'm totally on board with the wide-ranging and generic usage of "partner," and my perception is that the entire academy is, too, I'm not sure how common the usage is otherwise. The only non-academic whom I've heard use the term is my old college friend, the militantly liberal labor activist (nothing wrong with militant liberalism--I'm just sayin'). I suspect that, in many places, people would have no idea what you meant if you referred to your partner: business partner? Fellow cowpoke? Huh?
Which is a pity. It's such a lovely word.
*Hmm. Now that's a tough dream to interpret!