My Son’s Boyfriend Is Not His ‘Friend’

How the language surrounding gay relationships is changing with social mores

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

If gaydar is the ability to intuit someone’s sexual orientation merely by looking at them, what’s the flip side? It’s the ability to tell, with one word, whether someone might be homophobic. And that word, I’ve found, is “friend.”

“Where does your son’s friend live?” “What’s his friend’s name?” “Where does his friend go to school?” These questions have repeatedly been asked by people—neighbors, actual friends, relatives I essentially like—who already know that my 23-year-old son Sean is gay and that Henry is not his “friend.”

Henry is Sean’s boyfriend—I’ve made this point clear. And yet these smiling offenders persist in asking about him in a way that seems to both acknowledge and diminish the two’s relationship in a single stroke. The word “friend” catches in my ear; it may as well be an air-horn blast. I consider it my ultimate, secret weapon for outing what I consider to be the homophobes in my midst.

Brian Powell, however, sees it a little differently. A sociologist from Indiana University whose recent research suggests moral disapproval is the real reason same-sex marriage opponents want to ban the practice, Powell is no stranger to the controversy surrounding the subject. But, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Friday establishing a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage, he views the evolution of language as a key factor influencing those who are still calling my son’s boyfriend his friend.

“For some people it may well be homophobia,” Powell told me. “But I think for a large number of people today, with so much social change going on, it’s hard to keep up with what’s appropriate. The question is how to distinguish between the people who mean well but just don’t know what to say, and those who really have a hard time with gay relationships.” It’s a tough distinction indeed. I’m well aware of my bias—a protective, Mama Bear instinct that clouds my thinking about anything affecting the son of mine who happens to be gay (as well as my three straight kids).

I can see the logic in Powell’s theory that language simply needs to catch up to social progress, as it has during other seminal moments in history. After all, I experienced my own evolution of sorts, learning over many months how to weave my son’s sexual orientation into casual conversations on sports sidelines or at Scout socials. By now, though, just about everyone I know more than in passing is aware my oldest son is gay. Closer connections—including all the “friend” brandishers—know he’s got a boyfriend, a fiercely intelligent musician who can whip up a gourmet meal like nobody’s business (and lovingly transform my kitchen into an aromatic wreck in the process).

But while my gaydar may be lacking (I didn’t know for certain that Sean was gay until he came out to me at age 16), I can usually tell from these everyday exchanges who isn’t ready to hear about my son’s boyfriend as comfortably as they are, for instance, to hear about my daughter’s. After years of fits and starts, the staggering pace of progress in LGBT rights has made it a lot easier to sniff out those hiding behind a façade of gay acceptance in polite company. Even before Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, 37 states had legalized same-sex marriage over the last 11 years, and a new Gallup poll indicates a record 60 percent of Americans now support marriage equality.

Powell has witnessed this evolution firsthand in the years since his research began. In 2003, he noticed that when many of those he interviewed said the words “gay,” “lesbian” or “homosexual,” they used a verbal filler like “um” before the word or even lowered their voices, “not unlike when I was growing up,” he recalled, “and my mother said the word ‘cancer.’” By 2010, study participants had all but ceased these verbal tics. “The change we’ve seen over the last dozen or so years,” he posited, “is a result of a combination of factors: a very strong social movement; a very effective legal campaign; changes in the media; and open discussions in households and workplaces about these issues.”

But this sea change—and its effects on the language surrounding gay rights—hasn’t even caught up with everyone in the trenches. Powell himself has gay friends who won’t refer to themselves as husband and husband or wife and wife, if only because they hadn’t heard others like themselves referring to their spouses this way in the past. “People’s use of language is very much shaped by the language they used while they were coming of age,” Powell said. “Words are hard to get used to.”

Even a linguist wrestles with the “right” terminology. “Do we say gay marriage, same-sex marriage or marriage equality?” mused Geoffrey Nunberg, an adjunct full professor of linguistics at University of California at Berkeley. “It’s hard to distinguish genuine micro-aggression from mere discomfort,” explained Nunberg, whose many books include The Way We Talk Now and The Years of Talking Dangerously. “When I first heard a friend of mine refer to his husband, I did a double take. Of course, he was talking about a male spouse. But it sat me up in my chair the first time I heard it. The line between confused and obtuse is not an easy one.”

Are Powell and Nunberg being forgiving—or sage? I have to wonder if my age colors my perception of the issue, contributing to my cynicism. Powell is 60; Nunberg, 70. At 48, I barely remember when “women’s lib” was a thing, though I can vividly recall other major shifts toward gender, racial, and religious acceptance (and sadly, shifts backward as well). Bearing witness to a decade or two less of historical trends may place me at a disadvantage in fairly assessing what’s happening on my watch, and often in my own home.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs and getting greedy on my son’s behalf. He is, in a way, fortunate to be young and gay during a period in history where the combination can seem irresistible and widely in vogue. For his part, Sean finds the “friend” phenomenon merely “annoying,” he told me, “especially after Henry has been introduced as my boyfriend. It shows social tactlessness.”

But even my son has to speculate how much this apparent and subtle resistance to social progress actually affects his day-to-day life. How damaging is these folks’ discomfort on a practical level? “This neutral-toward-negative language, in terms of the continuum, may be somewhat negative, but compared to other things, I don’t think this is quite as important,” Powell reassured me. “If in a few years people are still doing this, it would be a sign of resistance.”

Confusion over language can be a good thing, too. It means people are actually thinking about what to say and why, instead of lapsing into outdated terms or callously disregarding the social change that’s otherwise impossible to ignore. “Once language settles into a particular pattern, then you don’t have to think about it anymore,” Nunberg said. “It’s only when you have to stop and think, ‘Do I call him a Negro or black, a Jew or a Hebrew?’ that it gets people talking and makes them aware there are issues here. Language is full of these decisions we have to make now.”

And full of decisions about how to respond as well. My inborn repulsion to any form of confrontation means I don’t overtly correct offenders who refer to Sean’s “friend.” But I never let their wording pass unchallenged. When they pepper me with questions, I always respond, “His boyfriend’s name is Henry,” “His boyfriend is a grad student in Germany,” or “His boyfriend’s family is from Maryland.” In my own way, I’m going to make sure they fully acknowledge my son.

And, according to Powell and Nunberg, that’s exactly how I should play it. “If you say ‘boyfriend’ back, you’ve made the point,” Nunberg said. I’m also wearing them down bit by bit—or, if they’re simply unsure, I’m subtly pointing the way by affirming the new wording, increasing their comfort with it. “This is a matter of strategy,” Nunberg pointed out. “You can’t change people’s minds about things directly, but you can change the way they talk about things, and that may change how they think. Nobody likes to be a hypocrite.”