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

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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.