For a while, I thought most of the women in my office were lesbians. Seriously. Nearly all of them. I thought “Wow, there are so many lipstick lesbians here! Who knew?!?!?” And you know why I thought this? Because they all say “partner”.
One thing I’ve noticed time and time again in Australia is how people tend to describe their spouse, husband, wife, fiancé, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, or whatever you want to call them simply as their partner. In the United States, the term partner is generally used for gays and lesbians. But in Australia, or at least in Sydney and the other major cities, it’s everybody – gay, lesbian, straight, and whoever else. I found it strange that an unmarried heterosexual woman would describe her boyfriend as her partner, and even stranger when a married heterosexual man would describe his wife as his partner. But here, it is totally common.
The classic example of this is Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Ms. Gillard is unmarried but is in a long-term relationship with a man who she refers to as her partner. And she calls him her partner on TV and nobody seems to think anything of it.
I don’t know exactly why this is, but I think I have somewhat of a good idea. First, I think there’s definitely more awareness around gay and lesbian issues in Australia – especially around marriage equality. So if everyone can’t have a spouse, some more progressive (straight) people may choose the word partner instead of husband or wife to avoid any faux pas. Maybe. But that still doesn’t explain Ms. Gillard as she is not married.
The more likely reason, from my observation: marriage culture in Australia is strikingly different than in the US and evolving into a more gender-neutral and less defined institution. The laws in Australia are such that you don’t need a legal marriage to have all of the same rights as married couples. It’s called “de facto” here, and as long as you live together in a long-term relationship for a certain length of time – whether straight or gay – you are treated the same as a married couple under the law. Perusing through the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, I found that the marriage rate in Australia has dropped significantly over the past 20 years while the rate of adults living in de facto relationships has more than doubled amongst both straights and gays. As a comparison to the current rhetoric in the US surrounding same-sex marriage, take a look at this introductory paragraph on the ABS’s website:
“Couple relationships provide people with love, companionship, support, and opportunities for having children and raising families. As such, couples are a fundamental building block of society. Changing social attitudes during the late 20th century have led to an increase in de facto and same-sex relationships as well as giving people more freedom to end relationships, start new relationships or remain single.”
Nowhere in that paragraph are the terms “married” or “marriage” mentioned. This is in stark contrast to the rhetoric used by the very vocal republican, right-wing Christian social conservatives in the US who spew out vile in relation to same-sex marriage. They claim marriage should remain the realm of heterosexuals because both a mother and father are needed to properly raise a child and that gay and lesbian couples don’t constitute real families.
What a load of rubbish. The Aussies are definitely in the better situation here.
So, what does this all mean? It means that “partner” appears to be on a path to becoming the primary way Aussies describe the person they make a commitment to – whether straight, gay, married, or not. You may be an unmarried woman living in a long-term relationship with a man. You’re not married, so he’s not technically your husband, but “boyfriend” seems way too light a term to describe somebody who you’ve lived with for a decade. “Partner” fills that void.
I like it.
But I will say this: with everything good, there’s always a downside, and this could have tragic consequences for me when trying to figure out who’s on my team and who’s not. My gaydar hasn’t always proven the greatest to begin with. Ugh.