Power of “Wife”
Sliwa likes the term “freaky deaky.” As in, “You may call
your relationship extraordinary, but I call it freaky deaky.”
Sliwa, who you may know as the founder of the Guardian Angels,
is also a radio host, and was filling in last week for Jay
Severin on AM radio in Boston. I basically know AM talk radio
by reputation only, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation
that I accepted a last-minute invitation to be a guest on
Sliwa’s show, especially since it was to talk about my unusual
As some readers may remember (“Beyond Marriage,” Looking Up,
Feb. 22, 2007), I have a husband and wife. Although on most
days my three-way marriage is just the normal background of
my life, because I have written about it from time to time,
sometimes when the subject comes up in the news, people come
looking to me for an interview.
This time around it was thanks to the three-way relationship
in Woody Allen’s new flick, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Someone from the Daily News contacted me for a real-life
perspective on three-way relationships (God bless anyone who
doesn’t take Woody Allen’s word for it), and Sliwa’s producer
contacted me after reading that article.
The interview was amusing. It wasn’t hostile, exactly. Sliwa
mostly repeatedly stated that this was all confusing and way
over his head and mentioned he’d been married three times
and that was hard enough, in between asking the fairly usual
set of questions about jealousy, legality, and sleeping arrangements.
I was never entirely sure if he was playing dumb on purpose
(“I don’t know, all this terminology: triad, poly-a-more-us
. . .”) or if it really did bewilder him that much.
Or maybe he wasn’t so much bewildered as actually embarrassed.
He commented once that he’d never imagined he’d be talking
about stuff like this on the radio, and “certainly
not on AM.” And then, of course there was the frequent use
of “freaky deaky” and the references to whether I got jealous
because one partner was “snacking on” the other. The tone
was sort of an odd amalgam of locker room and playground,
clumsily censored for the ladies.
Overall, for me, it was a little detour into another world.
Being someone who prefers to express herself in writing, where
I can edit and refine and get my meaning precise, I was fairly
relieved just to have not made an incoherent ass of myself.
So it wasn’t until after it was all over that I realized what
had really been surprising about the whole interview: Of all
the formal interviews and conversations I’ve had explaining
my family structure, this was, in its own odd way, one of
the most respectful of my relationship with my female partner.
Early on, Sliwa did make a reference to the TV show Big
Love, and asked if my family was “like that Mormon thing,
with one guy and . . .” I said no, it was an equal, three-way
relationship, and in fact, I’d been with my wife first, for
many years before our husband joined the picture.
From then on, Sliwa not only proceeded to use the word “wife”
without a moment’s hesitation, he focused more on my relationship
with her and how this arrangement affected it as the original
relationship than almost anyone else I’ve ever talked to.
Despite all his joking, he never once made any comment that
betrayed an assumption that my husband had the best part of
the deal. He made no lesbian jokes, no watching jokes.
I find this remarkable given not only Sliwa’s general demeanor,
but also the number of nominally mature, progressive, egalitarian
people who have, even after hearing our history, asked things
like how our husband talked us into it or talked exclusively
about him being the one being “shared.” And that’s not counting
the number of guys who have, sometimes in front of their own
girlfriends or fiancées, tried to give my husband a high five
or say admiringly, “You’re the man!”
I can only guess how Curtis Sliwa avoided this particular
detour into male fantasyland. Perhaps it’s all an act and
he’s really a very subtle, open-minded feminist.
My guess though, is that it’s in large part because I used
the word “wife.” Even though Rebecca and I had a commitment
ceremony more than a decade ago, it’s only recently that I’ve
begun using the word—it is, of course, a loaded term with
a long and sullied history, and many feminists and queers
reject it, even as others want to reclaim it. I’ve been ambivalent
about it myself, even as I long ago embraced the word “married.”
For better or worse, though, as a widely understood shorthand
for a certain level of commitment, “married,” “wife,” and
“husband” have still got some power. Witness, as my husband
is fond of pointing out, the doublespeak of “moderate” anti–gay
marriage activists who out of one side of their mouths say,
“Just take civil unions; what’s the difference?” while out
of the other they are saying “You can’t have those words!
They are special. And whether I’m right about the effect on
the rest of the interview or not, it’s a testament to the
visibility and successes of the fair marriage movement that
I could talk about my wife on AM radio at all without causing
anyone on air to choke, even momentarily.
It felt good. I just might say it more often.