Colleen Coover

Before we got our filthy, lube-smeared hands on it, "gay" meant happy, delightful, and carefree.

Now "gay" means just one thing: men burning with lust for other men, and women burning with lust for other women. (Some lesbians insist that "gay" doesn't mean them, but they're deluding their gay selves.) Common, decent Americans can't enjoy the theme song from the Flintstones ("We'll have a gay old time!") or listen to the original Broadway cast recording of Candide ("Glitter and be gay, that's the part I play!") without unwelcome mental images crowding into their poor heads.

Well, we've done it again. The homosexuals—us gays—have conspired to take another perfectly lovely, perfectly useful English word and turn it from its natural use.

Me and my boyfriend—the man I've been with for 12 years, the man I married two years ago in Canada—were invited to a neighbor's house for drinks the other evening. The subject of law enforcement came up and, being a bit tipsy, I mentioned that my father had been a cop, and launched into my favorite anecdote about my dear ol' dad's days in the Chicago Police Department.

"My dad's partner at the time was this guy named Joe Stahula, and Joe..."

The host of the party, a very nice woman, very well intentioned, and just as tipsy as I was, interrupted me with a question:

"Oh, was your father gay too?"

Excuse me? My father was so not gay—and neither was Joe Stahula, a tough-talking, blue-collar Polish cop. It is easier to picture my dad and Joe Stahula sprouting wings and flying off to the moon together than it is to picture them making sweet "life-partner" love to each other. Christ! Talk about your unwelcome mental images!

"No," I said, "my dad's not gay. Joe Stahula was my dad's partner in the 'policeman' sense of 'partner.' They drove around in a squad car together, arrested the bad guys, ate the donuts. That kind of partner."

•••

Apparently I missed the memo. It seems that we, the gays, stole "partner" just as we stole "gay" before it, and that we now enjoy the exclusive use of the word. I can only assume that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will drop all the alternate definitions of partner—business partners, dance partners, cowboy pardners—and run in their place a small picture of me and my boyfriend.

Gay partners, life partners, buttsex partners. I've been with my boyfriend for a dozen years, and we were married in Vancouver, British Columbia, on our 10th anniversary. We had a big party to celebrate our anniversary, not our marriage, which we wanted to keep secret—at least until the book I wrote about it came out. Yet 12 years, three houses, and one kid into our big gay partnership—and more than two years into our big gay marriage—I still can't bring myself to call Terry anything besides "boyfriend."

In Washington State, where we live, that's all he legally is. Calling him "husband," well, that feels like a lie. We live in a country that devalues, dismisses, and undermines our relationship. Calling Terry my "husband" would be like calling our small-ish house a palace, our Honda a Rolls Royce, or our son the Prince of Wales. It might be nice if those things were true, but they're not—and pretending they are doesn't make us royalty.

•••

Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable when I call this man I've lived with for 12 years my boyfriend. It bothers my mom, which is regrettable. But it also bothers a lot of well-meaning straight people, which in all honestly is part of the reason I continue to do it.

When it comes to a long-term relationship the term "partner," which so many are rushing to embrace, is legally and socially meaningless. It's a term that embraces our separate-and-unequal status, a label that says "more than boyfriend," but "much less than spouse."

While most straight people today agree that gays and lesbians should not be subject to discrimination in employment or housing, a majority is still uncomfortable with the idea that homosexual love is equal to heterosexual love. So the fight over gay marriage in the United States is not a fight for equal treatment. It's a fight—the final fight—over our common humanity.

What irks me about "partner" is how the term allows straight people to acknowledge our relationships without having to accept our relationships as the equivalent of their marriages. I know it makes people uncomfortable when I call the man I live with my "boyfriend." But hearing "partner" used in the same-sex sense reminds me of my second-class status, and that makes me uncomfortable. So we're even.