You know a man is straight because he tells you. It’s slipped into the first conversation – my wife, my girlfriend, the girl I fancy, he says.
For years, a gay man was less forthcoming. For someone in a couple, ‘partner’ might creep in, without a pronoun.
In 2008 I had dinner at a table that included the writer Philip Hensher. The volume of his voice went up, so everyone would hear him, and he spoke about his ‘husband’. He used the word like a social activist might, again and again, with pride very likely but also to shock.
I was dubious. Armed with a civil partnership certificate, I was a man who used the word ‘partner’, though had not done so over dinner. ‘Husband’ seemed a presumption. I preferred the word ‘mate’ but never used it.
Last Monday that changed. We passed through the atrium at Hackney Town Hall to a modern corridor at the back. At 3.20 our number was announced and a glass office door clicked and unlocked. James and I went inside to meet the registrar, Helen.
‘Is this a same-sex marriage or a civil partnership?’ she asked.
‘Well no one told me,’ she answered, and left in search of the paperwork.
Things clicked forward from there, Helen a happy presence to have in the room. We answered our questions to complete the forms.
‘Are you nervous?’ she asked.
We both were, a bit. The appointment was fitted into a working day but we had dressed up. I felt a sweep of anticipation on walking in, my head swamped with the significance of the moment.
Now it came time to read out my vows.
I saw the word coming and tears welled up. My voice faltered. I worked through the sentences that led up to it. This was no longer my lexical choice. The government required this word of me.
‘My husband,’ I said to James, and he, without faltering, said the same to me.