Why you should care
Because the dictionary doesn’t always cover everything. Michelle Tea would like to introduce you to her (rather hot) new ”husband-wife.”
Michelle Tea is the author of five memoirs, including most recently How To Grow Up.
A couple of months ago, I got married. It was, in many ways, traditional — I wore an elaborate white dress; my beloved, a tailored suit. I tossed my bouquet. In other ways, it was not — we walked each other down the aisle, hand in hand. After we exchanged our vows and made out before our community, the officiant (a friend who had become an ordained minister via the Internet) gazed down upon us. “I now pronounce you … married!”
We were never going to be pronounced ”man and wife,” my partner and I — firstly, because it’s gross and archaic, and secondly, because my brand-new spouse is not a man.
She looks like a man, though. Much more than she resembles a woman. She’s lanky and lean. Wears button-down shirts and dress pants she buys online from Topman , a U.K.-based retailer that sells menswear in XS. Her hair looks like a Pomade advertisement from the 1950s, so short the nape of her neck feels like velvet after a salon visit, the sharpest, straightest side part painstakingly combed into the shine of it.
She’s genderqueer, or gender-variant, or gender-nonconforming, all of which fall into the roomy transgender basket.
And speaking of advertisements, my former fiancée did a wee bit of modeling, for a website that focuses on the style and fashion of women like herself — masculine, to put it simply, or what was once called butch, a word that can feel a little 1990s, if not 1960s. To get radical academia about it, she’s genderqueer, or gender-variant, or gender-nonconforming, all of which fall into the roomy transgender basket. The photos were so hot that they wound up in the wedding section of the New York Times.
My partner is not a man — she doesn’t wonder whether she should begin a course of testosterone, as many of our friends have done. That’s not her path. She does go by a male name, preferring it to the female one she grew up with. She doesn’t ask people to call her ”he” — though if you do so by mistake, she doesn’t mind. In most all ways cultural and social, my partner is a boy. It’s just that she’s a girl.
She has no problem with being in between. And in San Francisco, where we live, the general public doesn’t either. It gets harder when we travel. In airports, I accompany her into the bathroom, ready to manage any conflict that might arise from a ”man in the ladies’ room” confusion. ”Lesbian in the ladies room” may make some less worldly travelers uncomfortable, but lesbians are famously women, so there’s no mistaking we’re in the right place.
I am her wife, with my long wavy hair and tinted lip gloss and open-toed shoes, but what is she to me?
On our honeymoon, we were misinterpreted as being mother and child not once but twice, despite the fact that I am only 8 years older than she is, and I’m often clocked as being in my late 20s, not my early 40s (not to brag). People were confused by our closeness, our casual intimacy, and our genders — me, slightly bossy and very feminine; her, sweet-cheeked and polite, boyish in a way that makes her look much younger than 34. I thought this was absurd enough to be hilarious, and laughingly went along with it. My partner, however, was rattled. When it happened again, she snapped quickly, “Wife. She’s my wife.”
I am her wife, with my long wavy hair and tinted lip gloss and open-toed shoes, but what is she to me? The dilemma of what to title someone existing in between genders in this binary-gendered world is tricky. We experienced it a month or so before our wedding, when my sister, a mom to two children, asked what the kids should call my fiancée once we were married. I was Auntie Michelle. What would she be? After much deliberation, she asked if she could simply be called by her name, and that was that.
But I can’t just refer to her as her name. While she is that — my _______, my person, mine — she is now the person I’m married to, and this is novel and exciting, and I want to refer to her as such whenever possible. But, my “wife”? How ridiculous. It serves to feminize her, and feminizing genderqueer females has the exact effect of feminizing men: It makes the individual feel uneasy and embarrassed and misunderstood.
Still, I do use the term on occasion, when I want to be known as queer, married to a woman, however manly she may be. “Husband” actually feels much more correct. My spouse is super-husbandly, leaving for work each morning in a tie, treating me with a gentle, gentlemanly chivalry. Once, on the phone with an insurance company, I referred to her without thinking as my ”husband-wife.” (I’ve also called her my “lesbian husband,” but only to those I knew would understand.) I like ”husband-wife” the best; it’s got way more spirit than the neutered “spouse” (that word always makes me think of the little pegs in the board game Life) and “partner,” which could really mean anything.
In fact, the more I use it, the more ”husband-wife” feels perfect, communicating that I am married to a queer female and honoring the masculinity that in so many ways defines her, is her essence. The more I use it, the less jokey it feels. As a culture, we are in desperate need of third-gender words, pronouns and names, and this need will only grow as increasing numbers of people are able to know themselves as transgender.
I guess it’s up to us to figure out what feels correct and to create new verbal traditions. As I type this, we’re preparing for our third round of IVF, in hopes of starting a family. And once that baby comes, we’re going to have to figure out what the child will call his or her dad-mom.