Over the years, I have made an offbeat, sociological argument regarding same-sex unions: that supporters would have an easier climb in securing equal rights for same-sex unions if woman-woman and man-man unions had unique names for each. Something other than marriage. Recent events have got me thinking about that again. Tina Dupuy at Crooks and Liars posted Suzie Sampson’s (The Tea Party Report) on-the-street interviews in the wake of President Obama coming out in support of same-sex unions. Sampson hit on the same solution:

Gay Marriage – Obama Comes Out for Love. Do You?

“The word marriage has a connotation,” an Amendment One supporter insists (more on connotation later). “They can have the same right, but not the same name,” says another man. When Sampson suggests pronouncing same-sex unions as “marry-äzh,” both are immediately fine with that. Why? When gay marriage opponents argue that “that’s not what it means,” or insist that marriage is between a man and a woman, it is often dismissed as a thin cover for bigotry. But is there more to it than that? What’s in a name?

On April 11, David Blankenhorn and Elizabeth Marquardt (originally from NC) of the Institute for American Values in New York City and supporters of California’s “Proposition 8,” penned an op-ed for the Raleigh News and Observer opposing North Carolina’s Amendment One, writing:

In the California “Prop 8” case, David felt that he could testify on behalf of traditional man-woman marriage in good conscience, in part because California some time ago passed domestic partnership legislation to extend legal recognition to same-sex couples. He argued in favor of domestic partnerships, more commonly called civil unions, while also insisting that marriage, because of its unique role in uniting biological, social and legal parenthood – a great gift to our children – is its own institution, deserving of its own name, and should remain, as it has always been, the union of a man and a woman. [emphasis mine]

I submit — and the examples above suggest — that there is something more subtle going on than equal rights vs. bigotry in the argument about the definition of marriage. Blankenhorn says he supports equal rights for same-sex unions. But he opposes using marriage to describe them. Now, the horse is out of the barn on whether or not to use the term marriage in advocating equal rights for same-sex couples. The We Do campaign, for example, is built around having LGBT couples ask local Registers’ offices for marriage licenses. In part, because there are legal differences in how the federal government treats marriage nationwide as opposed to other legal, state-sanctioned arrangements. That’s an issue blogger Bob Hyatt of Portland, Oregon’s Evergreen Community addressed recently:

The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church.

In past conversations, however, my suggestion (as a political strategy) about not using the word marriage in the fight for equality, or about inventing unique words for same-sex unions, was dismissed as relegating same-sex unions to second-class status. That puzzled me. Why worry about the verbiage as long as the legal rights and privileges are the same? Perhaps — and maybe few on either side consciously recognize it — this fight is over something more, something beyond the legal definition of marriage: sacredness.

Not that definitions don’t matter. Words mean something. Echoing the U.S. Supreme Court, Mitt Romney says, “Corporations are people, my friend,” and it sounds ludicrous. One hears people argue that marriage is only a union of one man and one woman. It is historically a male/female union, sure, but not necessarily involving only one of each sex. How many wives did Solomon have? 700? We have special words for multiple, opposite-sex unions: polyandry, polygyny, polygamy, etc. But not for describing woman-woman or man-man unions.

Bear with me here. Going back to Genesis 2, humans name things to distinguish this from that. It is basic cognitive processing, and marriage is an established mental construct. Those do not bend easily. Point to two men or two women and say marriage, and people like those in the examples above object, insisting that that is not what the word means. Is that bigotry? Maybe. For some, probably. But try this naming thought experiment (in your mind’s eye):

I hold up a cup and call it a box.
I hold up a plate and call it a bowl.
I hold up a spoon and call it a fork.
I hold up a kitten and call it a puppy.
I hold up a can and call it a jar.
I hold up a square and call it a circle, etc.

Trying that the other day induced a headache. Because the mind is a difference engine. It knows that even among similar things, this is not that.

When we see that opponents are unwilling to share the word marriage with LGBT couples, that is part of it. For them, two men or two women is not a marriage. First, because it conflicts with a mental construct fixed since childhood. It may be marriage-like, but it is different, requiring a separate name. But secondly, they oppose same-sex marriage because they refuse to accept that LGBT unions can be sacred.

Perhaps for a similar reason, LGBT friends balked at adopting alternate terms for their legal unions, terms that might decouple the fight for legal rights from social acceptance. They use gay marriage, same-sex marriage, or marriage equality instead of civil unions or domestic partnerships, and not just for the statutory differences. Because if same-sex unions are not marriage, they are not sacred and do not feel equal. It is a yearning buried in the sub rosa conversation. But in addition to legal equality, whether their relationships — their marriages — are sacred, whether neighbors in the community accept their unions as sacred is as meaningful for gay people as for everyone else. Civil union doesn’t quite cut it.

Still, if one’s goal is just to get to the other side of the mountain, going around or climbing the lowest pass will do. You don’t climb the steepest face without understanding that summiting makes getting to the other side harder. Recognition of LGBT relationships as sacred is a tougher climb, and not achievable through legislation anyway, any more than the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts settled the equality issue for African Americans. But by establishing their legal rights, passing those acts did lever open the door of acceptance a bit wider. On paper, at least. Recognition of sacredness for LGBT relationships will likely work the same way: over time.

(Cross-posted from Scrutiny Hooligans.)

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Tom Sullivan

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