The Controversial Language of Gay Rights

The word “marriage,” as John P. Marquand might have said, is a damnably serious business — particularly when it comes to America’s cultural grapple over homosexuality

  • Share
  • Read Later
A supporter of same-sex marriage wears a rainbow flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Obama tweeted in support of same-sex marriage this week, he used the hashtag #MarriageEquality. That term, like so many words and phrases inherent to America’s grapple over gay rights, is a loaded one. (After all, who wants to oppose equality?) TIME spoke to language experts about hot-button phrases associated with the arguments the Supreme Court Justices heard today, many of which make reporting on the topic a tricky proposition.

Take traditional marriage. On the one hand, opponents of same-sex marriage can use that language to purposefully elevate heterosexual marriage as a more established, legitimate relationship. In a piece assessing journalists’ coverage of same-sex-marriage battles for Columbia Journalism Review, Jennifer Vanasco highlights this point:

She uses “traditional marriage advocates” to refer to people against same-sex marriage and “gay marriage” to name the issue. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” are neutral terms. But “traditional marriage” is not. It’s a phrase used by conservatives to imply that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm forever …

But, says linguist Ben Zimmer, while the appeal to tradition is an important part of the argument against legalizing gay marriage, referring to heterosexual marriage as “traditional” undermines that position too. “By calling it traditional marriage, you’ve already ceded the ground that there is another kind of marriage,” he says. With the attempt to distance comes (perhaps inadvertent) recognition.

Or take opposite-sex marriage as a label for the marriage of a man and a woman. That phrase is used by journalists covering controversies over same-sex marriage, as in this New York Times article about the Supreme Court posted today:

The 1996 law did not allow the Internal Revenue Service to treat Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of about $360,000 that a spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay.

Yet that phrase has been criticized by proponents of “traditional marriage” for being politicized in the other direction. “Kindergartners will be told that some adults choose same-sex marriage and some choose opposite-sex marriage,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote in 2009. “There is no moral difference — it’s just a matter of different strokes for different folks.” Describing male-female marriages as “opposite sex” is factually indisputable. It’s also potentially jarring, because most Americans still wouldn’t use that phrasing in casual conversation, and new labels can make old institutions seem less familiar.

The language that leaders and media use is important in part because it becomes part of the corpora that dictionary editors examine to reflect society’s use of language. Those dictionary definitions are in turn used by the likes of Supreme Court Justices to make other important decisions. A 2011 study by the Marquette Law Review found that the panel had referenced dictionaries in more than 200 opinions written from 2000 to 2010. And it’s quite possible that the cases heard on gay marriage this week will add to that total.

To read more about lexical hang-ups associated with gay marriage and gay rights, click here.

37 comments
joey.108108
joey.108108

God made marriage between man and woman only. Then allowed sexual activity only to create children. Thats it. If you want to interfere with Gods law, then you must accept the consequences. When you die, the goverment cannot protect you, your gay friends cannot protect you, you will be alone. In that state you will be taken to Hell where your sins will be revealed to you. You will then suffer for them. It will happen whether you believe it or not. The soul is indestructible and does not perish with the body. But is responsible for her actions in the human form of life. For in the human form of life she has intelligence and reason, the abilty to understand right from wrong, an abilty animals do not possess. Because of this she is able in the human form to attain enlightenment and free herself from the material tabernacle by conscientiously following Gods word. If she does not she is condemned and thrown into ablivion to suffer the consequences of her sinful life. For every action there is a reaction, as you sow so shall you reap. Thats is the law. Gods law.

Taxfree1031
Taxfree1031

@LeahRainbird 1984 Newspeak comes to 2013. Winston Smith would be turning in his grave if he had been a real person.

sandrea19
sandrea19

I have nothing agains the gay community the only problem I saw with all this gay movement is that they are getting over the heterosexual rights for example now a day is normal to find a tv program for kids where one of the characters has some gay inclinations and that ok for a gay family but not for mine what I mean I have my value scale and the gay families have theirs value scale and I want to rise my kids according to my values what I mean let respect each other without trying to impose our point of view over the ones who think different

AK
AK

A quote from the text : ' “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” are neutral terms. But “traditional marriage” is not. It’s a phrase used by conservatives to imply that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm forever …' - I don't get the problem here with those names of different kinds of marriages - regardless some like it or not the marriage between a man and a woman HAS been the norm forever ... today some societies are trying to broaden the concept of marriage and give it different names but let's stay with the facts, that's all.


carterpeterson24
carterpeterson24

I have thought for some time that perhaps it would be best to abolish marriage altogether. All unions will be civil in nature and legally binding, with all the inherent rights formerly presumed by marriage.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

Homosexuals already have equality. They are free to have their "homosexual marriage" ceremonies and then co-habitate like everyone else. Nobody is stopping them. The blather about tax deductions and wills and hospital visitations are pure deception because the homosexuals are not arguing for a simple change of tax and inheritance law. No, they want to change the fundamental definition of marriage. Doing so would give them the necessary legal leverage to force their lifestyle on every man, woman, child, school, business, organization and church in America UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. That isn't going to happen. This is the beginning of the mother of all wars with civil disobedience that will rock the economy.

MegP
MegP

I have been following the "marriage equality" issue for several years, and support rights of "same sex" marriage". 

My reasons are a little "off to the side" of those commonly cited. I've never felt any "governing entity" - be it church or state - had any valid cause to "assess, evaluate, approve or disapprove" any relationship formed by two people who decide they want to commit to one another's well-being, and to share their lives together, with or without raising children, "for better or worse."  As I understand it, marriage in its original, more "primitive" form, was made legitimate when two people set up house together. Period. The village or community might have participated in a ceremony and shared a celebratory feast, and that made the marriage legitimate.

As I understand it also, early "Christian" marriages were more or less as I've described above. It was not until a few hundred years into "Christianity" that the Church became involved - more or less at about the same time, in other parts of Europe, the State became involved.  I regret the distress/threat anyone experiences that "traditional" marriage is threatened, and would ask them to consider "by whose authority" a committed partner/companion relationship should be given its most profound value.

Given where we are today, with complex financial and inheritance arrangements re"spousal benefits and rights", I suppose it's wise to continue making registration of marriages a legal matter. In that vein, as I understand it, all kinds of legal entities - even down to counties - have statutes and policies that direct financial and other benefits to spouses, and that the word "marriage" is usually used in reference to the commitment and union. The task of changing wording on each of thousands of legal instructions, to clarify that "marriage" = "civil union," is absurdly immense. For that reason, I support "marriage equality" ("same sex" as well as "opposite sex") "marriage".

Maybe it would be easier for a national law on language to be passed - maybe it could be decreed that "civil union" in all cases legally means the same as "marriage"! 

WalterShann
WalterShann

Marriage by definition is between a man and a woman. Same sex marriage? Just because some call that a marriage does not make it so. You can hang a sign on a horse saying it's a cow but it is not. Civil unions with all the same rights and benefits of traditional marriage is fine but don't call two men or two women joining together a marriage because by definition it just isn't one. And that is where most of the opposition to "gay marriage" comes from. Stop trying to call it something it is not and I think there would be less opposition.

dandelion
dandelion

Four legs good, two legs better!

remadi
remadi

The use of language can be seen when talking about any important (or not-so-important) issue. Take the terms for the two sides on abortion: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Both have implications for each side that are being purposefully made.

Language (or the protest of language choice) is even sometimes used to deflect conversation away from the actual topics to the more superficial ones of the meaning of words.

BillWright
BillWright

How about "same-gender" marriage, instead of "same-sex"?   We need to move away from the focus on sex.  The real issue is gender, and the discrimination against people who chose a partner of the same gender.

delta5297
delta5297

'“Kindergartners will be told that some adults choose same-sex marriage and some choose opposite-sex marriage,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote in 2009. “There is no moral difference – it’s just a matter of different strokes for different folks.”'

Yes, coming from a group that wishes to impose its moral vision on the rest of society, that makes perfect sense.

joey.108108
joey.108108

wicked is wicked is wicked. Cajolling ignorant people to accept wickedness is no less wicked, but eponentially more wicked. And the wicked will live in hell.

MrBenGhazi
MrBenGhazi

Our children and their children will use entirely different terminology: marriage. For both same-sex and opposite-sex. They will not see the difference.

retiredvet
retiredvet

What this argument is about is "traditional marriage." What other kind is there? Traditional marriage for all citizens.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

I can see a link between Katy's Weds. Words post at Newsfeed and the reader comments at Michael Crowley's Watching Kennedy post today: parsing the civil / legal side of marriage vs. the religious side and how this affects the meaning of marriage. Like connecting two pieces of a puzzle, maybe this will drive up site traffic too (but with minimal trollery though , please). 


jen20001
jen20001

@sandrea19 So, you want to teach your kids that there are no gay people in the whole world just like a T.V. show? Do you know anybody that's gay? Do you run away in fear and disgust or do you talk to them and relate to them like a normal person? Which values are you wishing to teach your children exactly?

jamesf161
jamesf161

@AK at the dawn of our species, marriage, and perhaps monogamy, were non existent concepts. At the conception of the universe, had there been a being there, it would have found the concept of carbon, or any other heavy element odd, let alone marriage. Perhaps when we conceived marriage, we did think it to be opposite sex, but how do we know? Regardless, marriage has changed over time; we still think it to be marriage.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@mary.waterton If gay people wanting marriage is a "lifestyle," then straight people wanting marriage is a "lifestyle," too.

But perhaps the truth is this: some people are wired to find the opposite sex attractive, and some people are wired to find their own gender attractive.  And it's an across-the-board attraction, too, jut just involving matters of sexuality.

The status quo has been that only people who were attracted to the opposite gender have been able to marry the person they actually wanted to marry.  Someone who was gay just had to "make do."  

Given that the support for same-sex marriage is not above the 50% mark, and at over 80% in younger people, I think that any notion of massive civil disobedience is mere wishful thinking.  It has not, after all, been the codgers who took up civil disobedience: it's been the kids.  And they don't have a problem with it.

jamesf161
jamesf161

@MegP it is still likely worthwhile to adopt a gender neutral definition of marriage, as such symbolises equality under the law, though your suggestion has pragmatic use; I imagine people would not object as much, though we well always have to suffer some fools.

MegP
MegP

Meant also to say - thanks for an article that at least introduces readers to how words serve as emotional triggers!  Political/social value language - on *all* issues - as well as consumer marketing language - is loaded with these. "Emotional trigger words" are a serious issue. When 'hit' with these words, our responses tend to be impulsive and our thinking limited to "all right" or "all wrong".

To the extent any society is not alert to their use, that society can be "played" by others who would persuade for their own purposes. If we do not notice our own responses to "emotional trigger words", we can agree to de-humanize and brutalize other people and other life forms. If we don't notice, we are inclined to never ask thoughtful questions that help us approach issues with critical thought.

Among the most powerful emotional trigger words are those that cause us to fear.  Generally, all emotional trigger words (and phrases) play on our deepest insecurities, longings, and wishes. We need to notice "persuasive" language.

jamesf161
jamesf161

@WalterShann Ideas and definitions exist merely in the mind, and the mind shall change; perhaps we write such things on pieces of paper and declare them law, but it can still change.

DanielAistrop
DanielAistrop

@WalterShann Marriage by definition is nothing more than a social/cultural construction. It's idea or premise is often designed to normalize acceptable/preferable behavior. It is subjective by nature and should be treated that way. Not as an absolute. Many cultures in this world, past and present, have defined marriage in many ways. For Christians, marriage is often seen as a union, under god, between a man and a woman. This is perfectly acceptable for Christians because it is how their religion chooses to identify marriage. However not everyone is a Christian and it stands to reason that not everyone identifies marriage as only between a man and a women. There are many cases in which marriage can be defined as a union between two or more people. Take polygamy for example, or polyandry (a marriage between  one woman and two or men, often brothers.) How we choose to marry in a culture or society is dependent on many things and not just religion or tradition alone. Environment plays a key role, or the ratio of men to women.

In societies where polyandry is present, the reason for two brothers to marry one women is often to prevent land from splitting up from generation to generation. If a father only has so much land and it is divided between two or more brothers, each brother taking half, then over generations each subsequent male heir inherits only a fraction of land and could be potentially problematic a few generations down the line.

Also, consider societies where men significantly out number women. There just are not enough women to marry all the men, meaning some men will never marry. What are they left to do? I'm not saying they choose to be gay, but marriage certainly couldn't be constrained to just one man and one woman, it may have to become more flexible to consider more than one partner in the marriage.  

As for putting a sign on a horse that says cow. You're right, just because it says something different from what it is, doesn't make it so. But just because you make an argument with simple logic, doesn't make it valid.

DanielAistrop
DanielAistrop

@BillWright Gender and marriage are not the same thing. Sex is a biological construction where as gender is a social construction. A biological man is capable of being feminine or taking on female roles in society thus allowing himself to be identify as a her, or feminine. Conversely a woman is capable of identifying as a man. It is also possible for an individual to have no gender, or to identify as multiple genders and be either physically a woman or a man.

In the case of gay marriage, you still have opposite genders. Take two gay men for example: one could identify as the woman in the relationship and the other as a male. You can also have two women who identify as more masculine. This is why you shouldn't confuse sex with gender.

Same sex marriage is used, but gay marriage is more mainstream. Lastly, the focus is indeed more on sex than gender. Opponents of gay marriage are more concerned with the sexual reproductive aspects of the relationship than the role two partners play in the relationship. 

My interest in all of this? I am an Anthropologist with a strong interest in cross-cultural perspectives on gender. There are many societies and cultures, past and present, that view same-sex. same-gender, gay marriage, as perfectly acceptable and in some cases encourage or praised. It's all about being mindful of the many ways people choose to live and giving equal rights to everyone. This is America after all, the great melting pot of the world where anyone can be anyone, doing anything, and go from rags to riches.

Ognywogny
Ognywogny

@sacredh You seem to have jumped on the inflammatory words bandwagon so here is the other side: Perversion is Perversion.

jmac
jmac

@deconstructiva I just tried to post a quote from Katy's link (dictionary change from widower losing a 'wife' to the term 'spouse'   and got denied a post because of  "malformed content."  Really?  

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

@jmac  I feel your pain. Now and then I have posts rejected or eaten for no known or clearly defined reason. I think livefrye simply hates us, or SkyNet is the one really in charge of blog software here.

Ognywogny
Ognywogny

@Piacevole @Ognywogny @mary.waterton The Viet Cong did not have popular support. They just had the will to terrorize. Now you are certainly right, all the southern, in-bred, mouthbreathing, cowardly dimwits like me won't have what it takes for an insurgency. Maybe.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@Ognywogny @Piacevole @mary.waterton In the last paragraph of my comment, that "not" should have been "now."  My error.

There isn't going to be an "insurgency" over same-sex marriage.  It's going to approximate what happened after the nullification of the miscegenation laws: life will go on, and there it will be.  As I said, the idea of a major uprising over this is wishful thinking.  An effective insurgency has to have, on some level, the support of the greater population.  This issue would not.