By Leslie Robinson
Ever since Vermont rolled out civil unions, I’ve fretted over terminology. What do you call people who have entered into a civil union?
Now it seems that question is receiving broader exposure. An Associated Press story raised it in light of New Jersey’s new civil union law. I’m sure a few straight people who never thought about the matter before reading the story responded, “I know what you get when two fruits join. A smoothie!”
With Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut offering civil unions, and more states surely to follow, it’s high time to nail down the lingo.
I suppose “civilly united” is accurate. It’s just dull. Some people have suggested that if you enter a civil union you’re getting “civilized” or “unionized.” I like those. Or maybe each member of a civil union should be called a “civilian.” And the appropriate attire for the event should be “civvies.”
Then again, to join in a civil union could mean you’re a “unionist.” If you’re British, you’re a “Union Jack.” Or if you’re both pursuing your education, you’re a “student union.”
Since we’re talking about a civil union and not marriage, if your relationship deteriorates, divorce isn’t an option. No, if the state of your union is uncivil, then you need to dissolve your civil union. I believe this process will come to be known as “civil war.”
Or if you discover that in your union there is no strength, then your friends might also tell you it’s time for a “union suit.”
The legislative debate in New Jersey focused on language. Lawmakers batted around terms like “spousal partnerships” and “equal benefits” before going with civil unions. I’d have been up nights, straining to extract catchy phrases from those clunkers.
Not that I’m so pleased with civil unions, which I believe marginalize us. New Jersey could’ve decided on the real deal, marriage, and didn’t. But civil unions are a mighty step in the right direction, and will be with us for a good while, so it’s appropriate for me to wring the heck out of them.
Which brings me to the next question. What do you call the person with whom you’ve been united in civilhood?
Jersey girl Veronica Hoff told the AP how she refers to her significant thingee. She doesn’t use “spouse” because she and Forest Kairos aren’t married, and “partner” is vague. At home they are each other’s “cupcake,” with “cup” being an acronym for “civil union partner.”
“It’s a cute nickname,” said Hoff. “But if I introduce her to somebody else as my cupcake, it doesn’t have a sense of dignity to it.”
True. I find “jelly donut” infinitely more dignified.
The phrase “civil union partner” is an awful mouthful, and as romantic as some couples will go with “wife” and “husband” and “spouse,” because they view their civil union as a marriage, or because their choices are so limited. What else is there, besides “partner?” You could use “mate,” but that makes me think of sailors or wildlife. By getting a civil union, you’ve graduated from “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” and “lover” or “sweetie” lack legal gravity.
“Consort?” “Better half?” “Meal ticket?”
It’s a problem. But it’s a good problem to have. A far cry from the day when the only safe term to use was “friend.”
Over 10 years ago I met a lesbian who proceeded to introduce me to her “spouse.” That struck me then, before gay marriage was on the radar, as an impressive, forceful declaration. Today, that word might still be all she needsÑor she might be backing it up by waving a legal document under noses every chance she gets.