scorecardresearch Skip to main content

When I was married to a man, no one ever asked if he was my brother

Now that I’m in a same-sex couple, I constantly have to define my relationship for others.

Illustration by Megan Lam

October 2018; John F. Kennedy International Airport. We’re obliging the usual questions from security personnel: Where are you traveling to? Did you accept any packages from anyone? A familiar routine from my previous overseas travel. But this is our first international trip as a couple, and I’m unprepared for the next line of questioning,

“What is your relationship?”

“Partners,” we answer.

With a furrowed brow, the young TSA officer asks, “Business partners?”

“Life partners.”

She stares blankly at us before excusing herself to get a supervisor. We wait, wondering what might come of the awkward situation. A few more questions and we’re deemed safe to join the rest of our group, who, as single travelers or heterosexual couples traveling to visit their respective children studying abroad, passed through with no problem.


Ten months later; Paris, the city of love. We’re traveling with both kids and my mom. It’s my daughter’s birthday and we splurge for an extravagant dinner at a restaurant housed in the Eiffel Tower. A professional photographer roaming the restaurant arrives at our table, eager to capture us in our fine-dining outfits, making toasts. He photographs us in various combinations — each of my kids alone and together clanking their champagne glasses, the kids with Grandma, my mom and me. Then he directs “the sisters” to get close for a photo. He’s referring to me and Vivian, my partner. He manages his embarrassment as I correct him, and proceeds to pose us, with little enthusiasm, before taking our picture.

Two months later; our six-year anniversary celebration at an upscale restaurant in suburban New Jersey. The evening is replete with good food, flowing conversation, and plans for a delicious dessert in Manhattan. Cognizant of the time, we ask for the check. Vivian leaves her credit card before heading to the ladies room. When the waiter returns it, I put the card in her purse. Vivian arrives and I leave to use the restroom.


Outside the restaurant, she tells me about the exchange she had with the older couple at the table next to ours, a man and woman whose lively dinner conversation about the volatile stock market we’d overheard earlier.

In my absence, the gentleman asked Vivian if we were sisters. After she said no, he responded with, “Well, THAT WOMAN was going through your purse!”

Eight months later; a socially distanced, end-of-year backyard gathering in our hometown to celebrate my son’s high school tennis team. The team’s season was canceled by the pandemic and each student athlete could only bring one adult to the host family’s house. The coaches finish their speeches while a catered buffet dinner is set up on the brick patio. A mini rainstorm crashes the outdoor event as we huddle uncomfortably close to share the scant few umbrellas the hostess could find, obliterating the 6-foot-distance recommendation. Wet and cold, I thank the hostess for her hospitality and say goodbye.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asks.

“No, thank you. My partner is waiting for me.”


“My partner; I promised I’d have dinner with her,” I reply, assuming the mask muffled my words.

“Who?” she asks again.

Days later; purchasing living room furniture at a store not far from home. The salesman asks, “Are you sisters?” Vivian responds, “We’re partners.”

“I figured you were but, you know, I didn’t want to assume, in case I was wrong,” he says, with a touch of swagger. But the message is clear: The assumption would be insulting if he were incorrect.


Having experienced a same-sex attraction in my mid-40s, I’m now more aware than ever: People don’t consider that two women can be in a romantic relationship without first eliminating other possible explanations. The most natural union I’ve ever had seems wholly unfathomable to others. Throughout my 19-year marriage, my husband could hold my pocketbook without being accused of purse snatching. And no one ever asked if he was my brother.

Melissa Giberson is a writer in Wayne, New Jersey. Send comments to TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.