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 It means people are actually thinking about what to say and why, instead of lapsing into outdated terms or callously disregarding the social change that’s otherwise impossible to ignore.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.