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The Power of “Wife”

Curtis 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 family structure.

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’re special!”

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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