Gay Men’s Relationship Vocabulary: Partner? Husband? Hookup?

In my long (29 years in 2021) career as a specialist in therapy for gay men and gay men’s coaching, I’ve helped guys in many different kinds of relationship styles.  Along with these styles comes a commensurate “vocabulary” that gay men use to describe and understand their relationships and the people involved in them.  It’s a vernacular of the gay male subculture of society, with occasional overlap with terms used in straight relationships (such as “husband” or “spouse”).

Part of the self-empowerment (my book on that topic is here) of gay men is understanding who they are in relationships, and what they want to be.  Sometimes these are congruent, and sometimes there is a gap that guys are looking to change, between what they are and what they’d like to be.  Often, I hear how a single guy might have a fuck buddy, but what he really wants is a partner or husband.

Let’s review some of these terms, and my thoughts on what they might mean for our community in general, and for you in particular:

  1. Daddy – This term is a slang for a gay man who is no longer considered very young, and while he doesn’t necessarily literally have children, he might embody some positive signs of aging such as education, knowledge, career success, financial stability, and self-care that provides for a healthy, attractive body and personal sense of style. Many gay men (myself included) resisted moving into embracing the Daddy Stage of life (approximately just after 40) because it can signify getting older.  But being a Daddy can have its advantages, too.  It can confer a certain prestige that, hey, you’ve met it this far in a far-too-often homophobic society and lived to tell about it.  In a relationship, being a Daddy doesn’t mean that you always pick up the dinner tab on a date, but it can.  This term is probably best understood in the context of what are the expectations in a relationship when one partner (or maybe both) is a Daddy?  It might imply a financial imbalance in the relationship of how the partners’ incomes differ (my article on that is here), or it might imply that Daddy Knows Best and this partner might serve in an unofficial mentoring role to a younger partner.

  2. Sugar Daddy – This term is a slang for an older gay man who substantially supports a younger gay man. I don’t really like it, because the implications for mutual exploitation are enormous; the older partner gets objectified for his money, while the younger partner gets objectified for his youthful beauty.  Objectification is not a solid base to form a relationship.  While plenty of these relationship styles exist (gay and straight), I maintain that any relationship that is not a “match made in Heaven” but is a “match made at the bank” is asking for trouble in the long term.  I think it’s best when each partner in a gay male relationship makes his own money and has his own career/income, and the presumptions of a great income disparity are left out.
  3. Twink – More slang referring to a young gay man, often slight or thin, but also considered “pretty” or “innocent”. Part of the several things that make me uncomfortable about this term is that it has hints of misogyny, feminizing young gay men as being “weak” or “passive” or “helpless” the way women were once referred to as the “fairer sex” or the “weaker sex”.  It has implications of emasculating grown, adult men.  However, the positive side to the use of the term can imply youthful spontaneity, optimism, energy, fun-loving, a lack of cynicism, and budding with promise in early adult life.  Often paired with a “daddy”, this is the opposite.  I recommend just pondering this term, to see how much it applies to you, and consider what your assumptions or expectations are in using the term.  How can embracing the twink identity be a positive self-concept?  What are the risks of it to watch out for?  Like others of these terms, is there a way to embrace the positive qualities implied with the term, and de-emphasize the negative ones?
  4. Twunk – A variation on “twink,” a twunk is generally considered a hybrid of a “twink” and a “hunk,” meaning that instead of being young, lithe, and thin, it means a young “hunk” who might be especially muscular. In the bodybuilding sport, younger men tend to put on muscle at a faster rate, so it’s (relatively) easy to achieve this look if you want, with sound workouts and a smart diet.  While twink can imply a pejorative, a twunk might be seen as having both youthfulness and muscularity.
  5. Leatherman – The gay men’s leather subculture, which emerged just after World War II, has evolved a lot over the years. Today, the “rules”of being a leather man have loosened a bit, and the subculture community is less rigid than the Old Guard.  Relationships among gay men who identify as leather men imply a particular ease with sexuality, and a celebratory embracing of the importance of sexy self-expression, such as wearing various leather gear, not only in gay bars, but in general settings (the hastag, #gear365 implies the self-empowerment (that word again) of gay men who assert their sexual self-confidence, community pride/identity, and sense of brotherhood and community service in all settings, without fear of being ostracized.  (Many gay men in the #gear365 identity report that wearing their leather gear in “neutral” spaces like public transportation or airport gates gets not condemnation, but admiration from others (including many straight people) who admire their bold self-expression).  While often leather men form relationships with other leather men, there can be “mixed relationships”, and the implications for being “into” BDSM or kink play are optional.  This identity in relationships is often a “phase two” of the coming out process, and can be associated with bolder self-expressions in gay men further past the time they come out.
  6. Gym Bunny – While often seen as pejorative slang, gay men do tend to form relationships with guys similar to themselves – that’s the “homo” in “homosexual” – including body type (in addition to age group, socio-economic status, or ethnicity – but not always – in my practice, I very often see gay male couples in therapy who are from different nationalities or ethnicities, in that “opposites attract” way). I’ve written about how gay men and their relationship to the gym can be particularly positive and healthy (here), but this requires ongoing critical thinking to avoid a certain “unhealthy” over-doing it.  Two young gay men (or even older) might pair up because they are both muscular guys, but having “being muscular” in common is not what I would call a fundamental building block in a successful gay relationship, whereas other building blocks (such as Commitment, Communication, and Compromise – my article on that, here) are.
  7. Master – Similar to leather man above, some gay male relationships are indeed part of a fascinating Master/slave relationship style. This type of relationship dynamic can have profound positive implications for intimacy, commitment, fun, security, bonding, and profound attachment.  While certainly a minority of gay male relationships, some guys can a lot of benefit from being a part of this relationship style subculture, which is an identity cultivated over time and learning a certain “folk knowledge” about the subculture, as many aspects of the kink or BDSM community are, taught not in colleges or anything formal, but taught by one another in the community.  Like so many of these, ask yourself if this type of identity might be rewarding for you.
  8. Slave – See above. What makes a guy drawn to the Master identity?  What makes a guy drawn to the Slave or “sub” identity?  These types of relationships have been far too often demonized or denigrated by others (including ignorant therapists, of which there are many) and by anti-gay religious conservatives.  But as a trained sex therapist, we know that a relationship style that has these bold dynamics can be profoundly rewarding for the partners involved, and guys are entitled to the self-empowerment (again!) to select this, or perhaps aspects of it, for themselves.  Being a kink-aware, kink-affirmative therapist can help guys drawn to all kinds of relationship styles get the support they need.
  9. Hookup – I hear a lot about gay men being or having “just a hookup” (which can be both noun and verb) when what they really want is a more serious, committed, long-term relationship. The sometimes tug-of-war between a reasonable need for self-gratification (“Mr. Right Now”) can sometimes feel antithetical to a long-term relationship (“Mr. Right”), but not necessarily.  Hookups can become dates who become partners or even spouses, and I think partners/spouses would do well to occasionally treat their partner/spouse with the sexual spontaneity and abandon of a hookup!  (I believe there is far too much “politeness” in long-term gay relationships that can squash sexual desire; my article on that is here.)  But sexual self-empowerment means that in any given moment, you are free to choose if or when to hook up (with another consenting adult) and when to focus on the conversational, interpersonal, social, or even intellectual aspects of a relationship.
  10. Lover – This is perhaps an antiquated term. When I was a kid in the 70’s, if you heard about gay male relationships at all, this term was used to describe one’s significant other. It’s funny how the word has all but disappeared, but for gay men at that time, in that generation, it was the most common. I wonder what terminology will “disappear” in the years ahead, that we find common now.
  11. Chew-toy – This funny term is more than a bit objectifying, but it’s meant playfully to describe someone who might serve as a third sex partner to an established gay male couple, for example, and it evokes how a dog might be very devoted to rubber, squeaky toy and chew on it and play fetch with it for hours (lots of experience as a dog-daddy here). While a bit controversial, this term can help make a discussion in a couple more light-hearted, although referring to a grown man, actual human being this way, can be risky in terms of more serious CNM or poly relationship issues.
  12. Fuck Buddy – While somewhat new to the gay world lexicon, this term is popular because it gives words to signify a relationship that is more than a platonic friendship, but less than a partner; it implies a social relationship that can be fraternal, friendly, casual, and benevolent, but also with a focus on sex and not on anything else domestic, serious, or requiring much, well, work. It can also be a term that guys might find frustrating, saying, “I’m just his fuck buddy, but I want to date him.”
  13. Paramour – This more fanciful term is useful in that it means, basically, “around love” or “adjacent to love.” I’ve used this term in my practice to describe how in a gay male couple, one or both primary partners might have a guy on the side who is a relationship of more than just brief duration; the straight equivalent might be a married straight man with a “mistress”.
  14. Friend/Ex – Not all friends are exes, and not all exes are friends, but in the gay male world, there can be either some overlap, or some blending of who is “just” a friend (implying non-sexual, platonic, versus who is “something more” (implying the romantic or erotic). Again, this term can be a source of frustration, such as when a guy is “just a friend” but you want to date him.
  15. Companion – Straight society used to love to use this term as a “gentle” and non-threatening, straight-accommodating way to describe gay relationships, such as in the old days of AIDS obituaries, with something like “he is survived by his longtime companion.” It was also used in the past (say, the mid to late 20th century) to describe both gay men and lesbians who were “out” subtly, but very discreet to avoid public scrutiny, such as at work or in the local neighborhood: “Oh, apartment 201?  That’s Mr. Jones, and his companion, Mr. Hernandez”.  It has a slight tinge of undermining the seriousness of the relationship, and is a slight jab at denigrating gay relationships as not on a par equally with straight ones.
  16. Partner – Perhaps the most commonly-used term these for a long-term, domestic, co-habitating relationship, used by both gay and straight communities alike (although when I hear it used in the straight sense, I bristle just a little that it feels like some kind of cultural appropriation from the LGBT community). It has somewhat replaced “boyfriend/girlfriend” in both the gay and straight sense.  I used this term for my own relationship, before my husband and I were married (see below).
  17. Husband – Although some gay men used the word “husband” before marriage equality was legal in any state, to insist that their relationship had the same quality, integrity, value, and respect as heterosexual marriages, it wasn’t until the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality that more people (including me) started using it. There is some question on whether using “husband” (versus, say, “partner”) is too heteronormative to stomach, but I believe in total equality (which, you’d be surprised, many, including some gay men, do not).  It took me a little while to get used to using this term with others, “outing” myself (my article on the many ways that we come out, over and over, is here) when I was arranging for a home repair:  “Wednesday at 3pm?  Sure; I won’t be home, but my husband will be.”  I think the use of terminology like this has actually helped the general public to normalize and accept same-sex relationships more profoundly, because we know that social acceptance of same-sex marriage has been rising quickly and dramatically in recent years, which is heartwarming news.

Gay Men’s Relationship Vocabulary: Partner? Husband? Hookup?

So, now what we have this overview of these terms, and hopefully a review of them makes you reflect a bit, consider what each of these terms brings up for you.  Which of them apply to you?  And, how do you feel about that?  Are the terms that apply to you the ones that you want to apply to you?  Are there terms that that don’t yet apply to you, but you would like them to?  Are there terms that describe your relationship roles, or feelings, that aren’t on this list?  If there is a gap between who, or which “term” you are, are there ways that could change your thinking, outlook, behaviors, and social interactions that would help narrow the gap?

The actions of changing and thinking your approach might be the areas that could be ripe for therapy or coaching services from an LGBT-affirmative (and gay male specifically) provider.  If this might interest you, please get in touch:  Call/text 310-339-5778, or email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, for more information on the services at GayTherapyLA.com, or to make an appointment.

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