The Power of Words

First published at on February 13, 2009

Two decades ago, when I first came out of the closet, my mother had an irritating habit of referring to my boyfriend as my “friend.”

You could almost hear the scare-quotes around the word as she would speak it. “This is John’s, um, ‘friend.’”

When I complained to her about it, she feigned innocence. “Well, he is your friend, isn’t he?”

“No, Mom, he’s my boyfriend,” I retorted.

“Isn’t that based in friendship?” she tried.

“Mom, how would you feel if someone referred to Dad as your ‘friend’?”

“That’s not the same thing!”

Which was true, as far as it went. Mom and Dad had been together for decades; the boyfriend and I had been together for mere weeks. Still, he was my boyfriend, not my “friend,” and I bristled every time she would use the latter term to refer to him.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Mark (my partner of seven years) and I were visiting my parents in Texas. We stopped by the large salon where Mom recently started working.

I’d visited the place before, but Mark hadn’t, so Mom grabbed him by the hand and started introducing him around. “Hey, everybody—I want you to meet my son-in-law.”

I smiled to myself.

Mind you, there’s no “law”—either where we live in Michigan or where my parents live in Texas—that recognizes the relationship Mark and I have. We have a big fat expensive binder full of powers of attorney and what-not, but legally speaking, that’s it.

But “son-in-law” wasn’t about legal reality. It was about our familial reality, which is far more important to Mom. (Us, too.)

The funniest part of it is that she often didn’t even bother to mention his name. This pleased me. My family has a longstanding habit of referring to family members by roles instead of names. So Mom will say, “Your sister called” instead of “Jennifer called;” “It’s your uncle’s birthday” instead of “It’s Uncle Raymond’s birthday.” This never struck me as odd until a high-school friend pointed it out. It’s certainly inefficient (“Which uncle?”) but it nicely expresses the tight fabric of our family.

Mom’s comfort-level transformation happened years ago, and I wouldn’t have even noticed “son-in-law” were it not for the occasional perplexed reaction it evoked. (Jennifer, who lives near my parents, is unmarried.)

“Your son-in-law?” her co-workers would ask, wondering if there was another daughter they hadn’t met.

“Yes, my son’s partner!” She now says it without batting an eyelash.

Notwithstanding the importance of law, these kinds of shifts will do more to bring about marriage equality than any court decision or legislative initiative.

That’s not just because black-robed justices are no match for red-aproned Brooklyn-Sicilian mothers. It’s because marriage is, at some level, a pre-political reality. Yes, the law creates something, but it also acknowledges something that’s already present. Both roles are important.

In calling Mark her “son-in-law,” Mom is saying something that is false legally but true socially. The fight for marriage equality is largely a fight to align the legal reality with the social one. And the more often ordinary people refer openly to that social reality, the easier it will be for the legal reality to catch up.