One thing I dislike about the English language (and many others) is how much colder gender-neutral relational terms are to their gendered counterparts. Contrast “mother” or “father” with “parent”; “husband” or “wife” with “spouse”; “daughter” or “son” with “child.” To speak of my mother suggests warmth and closeness (even if it’s of a negative kind); to speak of my parent suggests a clinical distance.
It’s easy to understand why this is so. The assumption in our culture is that gender has an impact on intimate relationships; that a mother-daughter relationship is different from a father-daughter, or a mother-son. A business colleague (ideally) is the same to you whether they are male or female, but a sister is essentially different from a brother.
But this poses serious problems in a world where the complexities of gender are better and better understood. There are tropes and types for different relationships, but these aren’t nearly so neatly followed in the real world. In mother-daughter and father-son relationships, for example, there’s a two-edged dynamic that’s fairly universally understood. First is role-modeling, where the child looks to their same-sex parent for a pattern of how to live life; simultaneously an example to follow and a standard to live up to. Second is rejection and deviation, where the child breaks from the pattern set by their same-sex parent and chooses their own way, although still taking many of the parent’s precepts as foundational. And surrounding this dynamic (in which both of these elements co-exist) are feelings of shame, admiration, anger, guilt, loyalty, and betrayal. Same-sex parent-child relationships are intense.
I know this dynamic very well, but it is embodied in my relationship with my father. My father is the parent I have always identified with, aspired to be like, determined I would never under any circumstances be like. My relationship with my mother carries none of this identity-laden baggage. Father-son dynamics in literature, like that played out in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, move me deeply, as I see myself and my father reflected in the story. In a biological sense, I am my father’s daughter, but in a narrative, relational sense I am my father’s son.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels a dissonance between what particular relational terms seem to imply, and the realities of their own relationships. Things get even hairier when you’re talking about romantic relationships. For better or worse, in our culture, the gender of the person you’re in a relationship with says something about you. If I, a woman, have a girlfriend, I’m queer; if I have a boyfriend, I’m straight. I always feel awkward and uncomfortable going with my boyfriend to Pride events; I want to cry out, “Just because there’s a boy on my arm doesn’t mean I’m straight!” That’s probably more my own social anxiety than anything, since I’m sure most of the queer people around don’t automatically judge or exclude me for being in a hetero relationship, but the larger problem is still there.
A dear friend of mine, who’s been out as a lesbian for years to most of our mutual friends, despite religious disapproval on the part of many of them, is now dating a transman, and has a strange line to walk when mentioning her significant other. He’s clearly her boyfriend, not her girlfriend, but for her to use the word “boyfriend” reflects back on her inaccurately: people, especially those who are hoping she’ll return to the path of righteousness (i.e. not being gay) are going to wonder, “Has she gone straight?” And she can’t correct that misapprehension without revealing her boyfriend’s personal history to people who he’s never met.
Then you have the problem of people who would prefer not to be gender-pinned by language at all, whether they feel gender-neutral or ambi-gendered or just don’t think it should be relevant. But for them, as for people in all the above-mentioned scenarios, the option of using gender-neutral relational language carries one serious drawback; it implies coolness and distance, instead of a warm, vital relationship. It just doesn’t feel the same to talk about “my significant other” instead of “my boyfriend.” It might be the best available option, but it’s unfortunate.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. Maybe as more people have to deal with the complexities of gender in their own lives, the connotations of our relational words will change. For now, the best we can do is be aware of the problem, and make the best of it.