Twitter Wants to Keep Its Partners, Thank You

This month, Twitter users have been locked in a heated debate about who can refer to the object of their affection as a “partner.” The argument was sparked by a Twitter user who called out cisgender, hetero folks who using the term for LGBTQ cultural appropriation.

In a now deleted tweet, twitter user @anarcho_slut wrote “the gender neutral word ‘partner’ really has been hijacked by ‘progressive’ women who don’t want to admit the fact that they are actually dating the white cis het dudebro they’ve been loudly railing against their whole ‘woke’ lives.”

Twitter was quick to dissent. People from a variety of lifestyles use the word, from poly folks to bisexual women. They argue that the word works best when it’s adopted by as many people as possible.

Some said the tweet ignores bisexual women who may choose to remind to world of their bisexuality by calling their boyfriends/husbands “partner,” taking advantage of the word’s queer association.

Bisexual erasure occurs when people forget or deny that bisexual people exist. When a bi person is in a monogamous relationship, the outside world assumes they are gay or straight based on their partner’s gender, ignoring their overall sexual preferences. Many bi people signal their bisexuality as a result. Using “partner” is one way of doing that.

Other LGBTQ Twitter users like that their own queerness is less on display as more cishet people use “partner” as well. University of Toronto linguist Lex Konnelly explained that cishet usage of partner “disrupts the idea that cis and straight people are the default from which queer relationships deviate.” Meaning the more non-LGBTQ people use “partner,” the less LGBTQ people stand out for using it.

Some tweeters argued that “partner” is useful for hetero women who want to avoid the patriarchal associations with marriage.

Then there’s polyamorous people. Poly Twitter users pointed out that they use “partner” because they want all their lovers on equal footing with each other. They want to avoid the hierarchy of calling one person a husband or wife.

The origins of the term partner are ambiguous, adding another wrinkle to the debate over appropriation. William Leap, who studies queer linguistics at the American University, says it’s unclear who started saying partner first. “Did straight people get it from us, did we get it from them? Who can say?”

He said the queer community adopted “partner” some time after 1970 when it referred to a sex partner. In the 1980s and 1990s, it evolved to mean long-term partner, coinciding with the AIDS crisis and the then-nascent fight for gay marriage.

Leap stressed that LGBTQ language “isn’t secret code.” Indeed, the more straight, cisgender people know the language, the better.

“LGBTQ language thrives—always has thrived—on being known, in part, by outsiders,” says Leap. One of the biggest barriers to LGBTQ equality is that we still assume someone is straight and cisgender until they come out as otherwise. The more straight, cis people use gender neutral words like “partner” instead of “husband/wife,” the less automatically we assume people’s gender and sexuality and the less ostracized LGBTQ people are as a result.

Of course, there is value in some language being reserved for minority communities. White people cannot use the n-word, for example, no matter how liberal a white person they are. But experts like Leap and Konnelly say that rule doesn’t really apply to partner, because of the multitude of reasons someone might choose the word, and because of the value in more people using gender neutral terms.

Dirty Lola, sex “edu-tainer” and activist and host of the educational variety show Sex Ed A Go Go, says “I don’t have a problem with cishet women or any non queer person using gender neutral language period. It helps rewrite our brains so we automatically stop assuming gender.”

She adds this caveat: “I think the tweet carries some weight though. Behind every joke is an ounce of truth.” She means the straight, cisgender white woman who tries to appear as “woke” as possible by obscuring her own privilege, instead of acknowledging it. She might use “partner” to appear more queer than she is, to win liberal points. That’s understandably aggravating to actual queer women.