What’s in a word?

I am in the bank.
“Date of birth?” the cashier asks.
I tell her and she smiles – an action that transforms her from a bank teller into a real person.
“That’s in two days,” she says. “Happy Birthday. Do you have any plans?”
I have plans that involve the cinema, a hidden burger joint and ice cream sundaes. I am 41 going on five, but she doesn’t need to know this.
“Just a few things lined up,” I say. “I’m spending the day with my – wife.”
I don’t know if she hears it – the pause – but I do. Half way through the sentence I’d seen the word “wife” looming and that millisecond of a pause had been my taking the time to decide whether to say it, or not.
For the last fifteen months I have been making that decision, practising using the word “wife” in various settings. I have a strange relationship with the word. I put this down to the fact that for most of my life, a wife was something I was supposed to aspire to be, not something – or someone – I was supposed to want. And yet I did, and yet I do.
All this practice has made it easier, like building muscles. It’s less of a hurdle now, most of the time when I see it coming I jump, glide, soar right over it with hardly any effort. This is New York City, after all, and since 2009 wives have had wives and husbands have had husbands. Walking down the street, hand in hand with mine, it rarely now ever crosses my mind that someone might do a double take or have something to think about that, much less something to say.
But this is a bank. And old habits die hard. 
When I look at the cashier, she’s still smiling, possibly even wider than before.
“My birthday’s at the end of the month,” she says. “My fiancée is taking me to Florida, I’ve never been.”
“That’s nice. What part?”
“Daytona,” she says. “Her friends have a place there.  We’ll stay with them.”
It takes me a second to hear it “her friends” but when I do, I smile too. At the thought of her birthday plans and of mine. At how simple life can be if we let it.
Walking up Seventh Avenue in the sunshine, I am thinking of the interaction in the bank and of the referendum in Ireland, about the focus on the importance of words like “marriage” and “wife” and “husband.” I’ve heard questions posed again and again about why this needs to be called marriage anyway? Isn’t Civil Partnership almost the same thing? Wouldn’t it be simpler to leave the word marriage out of it entirely?
Until you’ve come out, I think it’s hard to understand how frightening this can be, how big it is, how deep it goes. That it’s not something you do once but instead something you have to do over and over and over again. I don’t wear a biker jacket or have a shaved head. I usually save my rainbow T-shirts for Gay Pride week. People assume I’m straight, until I tell them otherwise. When I say I am married, people assume I am married to a man. Every day – sometimes many times a day – I am faced with the choice while doing simple every day things, to come out of hiding or not: I’ll wait for my wife to come until I order. It might be listed under my wife’s name. Not my husband actually, my wife.
This is part of every LGBT experience, it is not unique to people who are married but marriage changes it, or at least it changed it for me. There can be some ambiguity in terms like “girlfriend” or “partner.” But there is no ambiguity when I say “my wife.” There is nowhere for me to hide.
The thing about hiding is that it becomes a habit. And if you were ever in hiding chances are there’s a damn good reason you were there in the first place, that it was scary to be seen. I’ve written about my sexuality in national newspapers. I’ve read from my novels at LGBT events and answered questions from the audience. I’ve talked in radio interviews about coming out. And yet sometimes, like that day in the bank, it is still scary. But then I remember, that when I allow myself to be seen, that tiny action allows others to be seen too.
The “no” side in this referendum want you to be confused, to think that this referendum is about many things, but it is only about one thing: it is about love. By voting “yes” on May 22nd you are validating and affirming the right my wife and I have to love each other, to care for each other, to commit our lives to each other the way a man and woman can. You are saying that you see us and our relationship as it is. And that it is equal to everyone else’s.
Civil Partnership is not the same thing as marriage, in rights or in name. A woman having a child within a Civil Partnership will be registered in Irish maternity hospitals as a “single mother.” There will be one name on the baby’s birth certificate and should anything happen to her, her Civil Partner has no rights over that child at all. Whether we like it or not, words matter, these definitions matter. They define who we are, how others see us and, ultimately, the people we can become.
I am a wife and I have a wife and I want Irish women who want wives and Irish men who want husbands to have that too. I want little girls to grow up being able to imagine their beautiful bride walking alongside them up the aisle, I want boys to celebrate weddings where their uncle or their brother or their Dad is getting married to a man they love. I want to live in a world where the foundation of a family is love and security, not a penis and a vagina.
These might be big things to want, or maybe not. Actually, they feel like simple things. To stand in a bank on a Thursday afternoon – on Seventh Avenue in New York or Dalkey Main Street – and to be able to say “I’m spending the day with my wife.”


Without having to pause.


  1. Hi Yvonne,
    I've been waiting to hear your thoughts on the upcoming referendum, and I'm glad they've finally arrived.
    I've been married more than 11 years now, and I love having a wife. I lived with my wife for 6 years before we got married and people told us that things wouldn't be any different once we were husband and wife. They were wrong; it is different: wonderfully different, difficultly different, forever different.
    I hope the referendum passes next week. I really hope all the predictions of a landslide for yes don't keep people away, apathetic, expectant that without their vote, it won't matter. What's a single vote anyway?!
    I'm delighted you both get to use the term wife, that I get to use the term wife, that my wife gets to call me husband. If civil partnership is good enough for gay people, why isn't it good enough for straight people?
    Fingers crossed for Friday — and remember: Every. Vote. Counts.

  2. Hi Ruadhri,
    So good to hear your thoughts too. And I love how you describe all the ways marriage is different – for me too.

    Fingers, toes and everything else crossed for Friday. Hope we'll all have something to be proud of and celebrate this weekend. In the meantime, send my love to your wife! (Can't believe it's been 11 years!)


  3. Lesley Whelan

    Great writing Yvonne and can completely relate to that dreaded pause waiting for a reaction. I often get angry with myself for still worrying what others think or how they will react to my relationship, silly but human nature to somehow think we are protecting ourselves when really we are not being ourselves at all. We are nervous about the referendum result and finding it tough as surrounded by opinions and debates in the paper, social media and TV. It is like our lives are up for public debate as to whether we are right or wrong. Some of the no posters especially with children all over them have particularly caused upset. The TV has been switched off in frustration a good few times in our house recently. We can only hope of a yes vote so that our family has the protection we long for and need. Here is hoping we are all celebrating at the weekend.

  4. Hi Lesley, great to hear your thoughts too. Yeah I totally relate to that having to turn off the TV thing. I heard something on the radio (RTE podcast) the other day that made me want to throw it out the window. Babs' post on Facebook yesterday was really powerful. I think getting the personal stories out there really help cut through the confusion that is being generated around it. Yeah hoping for a weekend celebration as well – let's keep everything crossed. Hope all else is well and dying to see you three (!) and hopefully celebrate again when I'm home!

Comments are closed.