Seven Hang-Ups in the 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., on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Bloomberg / Getty Images

Marriage, as John P. Marquand might have said, is a damnably serious business—particularly among gay rights activists and same-sex marriage opponents. Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the legal definition of “marriage,” one of many words and phrases that embody America’s long cultural grapple over homosexuality. In this week’s Wednesday Words, NewsFeed takes a look at that lexical quagmire and six others:

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Marriage

For years, lexicographers have pored over the term at the center of Supreme Court proceedings today, trying to tweak dictionary entries to reflect how all people use the word, regardless of their political persuasions. “Lexicographers end up in a no-win situation, where no matter what they do, somebody’s going to have trouble with the definition,” says Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive producer at Vocabulary.com.

Some dictionaries, like the historically ordered Merriam-Webster, have added a second definition for same-sex marriage and left the main entry referring to a man and a woman. Zimmer points out that some gay rights activists balk at that fix, however, feeling a second definition suggests that gay marriage is second class. Other references, like the American Heritage Dictionary, have wedged more information into a single definition: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.”

“It’s not that the word changed,” says American Heritage dictionaries’ Executive Editor Steve Kleinedler, one of the editors who worked on the update. “It’s just that the scope broadened.” And these editorial choices matter: it’s quite possible that the Supreme Court Justices will include various dictionary definitions of marriage in their discussions or opinions about the cases they’ve heard this week.

Traditional marriage

Opponents of gay marriage are in a tricky spot when deciding whether to use the term traditional marriage. On the one hand, that language purposefully elevates 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 while the appeal to tradition is an important part of the argument against legalizing gay marriage, Zimmer says, calling heterosexual marriage “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.

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Opposite-sex marriage

Pundits are also in a pickle when deciding how to refer to a marriage between a man and a woman. “Traditional marriage” is loaded in one direction, while “opposite-sex marriage”—which is becoming a more regular phrase among journalists—has been criticized for being politicized in the other. “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.

Marriage equality

Though this term may seem straightforward, it’s not completely neutral, even if people who use it have no intention to be slanted. In recent years, marriage equality has been successfully used by proponents of same-sex marriage to make their position harder to argue against, Zimmer says: After all, who would oppose equality? “The whole same-sex marriage debate had increasingly fallen under that rubric,” Zimmer says. The usage has become so widespread, he notes, that the phrase was the American Dialect Society’s runner-up for “Word of the Year” in 2012. Obama used the hashtag #MarriageEquality this week to express his support on Twitter for same-sex marriage.

Husband and wife

The Associated Press, which produces a definitive style guide for journalists, got in hot water last month when editors answered a question about whether writers should use the words husband and wife when referring to gay couples. In a memo, the editors wrote:

We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

An online firestorm ensued, with some accusing the AP of “separate but equal” linguistic treatment for same-sex spouses, and the AP eventually issued different guidance: “Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.” The AP “has never had a Stylebook entry on the question” before, the editor said in a statement, attempting to explain the shifting behavior.

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Widower and widow

In recent years, the American Heritage Dictionary also updated its definitions for widow and widower. The latter, for example, now includes any man who was married and lost a spouse, rather than only those who have lost a wife. Editor Kleinedler is gay and had been married in Massachusetts by the time they updated the definition in 2009. Soon after, his husband unexpectedly died. “In the shattered aftermath of profound loss, an obsolete or incomplete definition of widower would seem an insignificant detail,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Advocate, “but all such trivial details viewed together coalesce into a constant reminder of a two-tiered, unequal system.”

Queer

Though unlikely to be uttered at the Supreme Court today, queer is an example of a rare “reclaimed word” and a reminder of how many decades gay rights have played the rope in a societal tug-of-war. A reclaimed term is one that was used as a slur but then commandeered by the group being slurred. Queer, which also means unconventional or deviating from the norm, was used as a pejorative term for gays and lesbians before being reclaimed in the 1980s. Homosexuals and gay rights advocates used it in academia and when referring to themselves, thus giving the word positive or neutral connotations to balance out the negative. “Very often it’s a project in identity politics to take these words-as-weapons and then use them for your own purposes,” Zimmer says, “to take away the offense of a word by making it your own.”

Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.
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9 comments
banter2345
banter2345

If you are Christian or oppose this on moral grounds, do not obtain a state sanctioned marriage.  A license, as defined by Black's Law Dictionary, is "The permission by competent authority to do an act which without such permission, would be illegal.” They actually think that they can regulate a Godly institution? Only if you let them.  

You are giving the State jurisdiction over your marriage.  You can have the same protections by making a last will and testament, giving your wife and children the father's last name, and proper estate planning.  Common law marriage is the Godly way of marriage.  When were marriage licenses first issued in the U.S.?  Here's a little background.

Historically, all the states in America had laws outlawing the marriage of blacks and whites. In the mid-1800’s, certain states began allowing interracial marriages or miscegenation as long as those marrying received a license from the state. In other words they had to receive permission to do an act which without such permission would be illegal.

Blacks Law Dictionary points to this historical fact when it defines “marriage license” as, “A license or permission granted by public authority to persons who intend to intermarry.” “Intermarry” is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as, “Miscegenation; mixed or interracial marriages.”

So let them keep their "licenses".  You can keep the fee and keep them out of your lives.  Bankrupt this little part of their overreaching system.

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO ENTER HEAVEN...........

......1 Timothy 6:12.........
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life,

.......2 Timothy 4:7.......
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

SemperFi1946
SemperFi1946

Homosexual marriage is not about equality under the law, that could be achieved by specific legal language contained in Civil Union contracts.  Homosexuals want "Marriage" on their certificate in order to give legitimacy and normalcy to an abnormal relationship or lifestyle.  If homosexuality was the "Norm" instead of being abnormal, there would be no disagreement on the issue, as the argument would be moot. Problem is, the vast majority of humans on this planet know that homosexuality is not "normal" but abnormal and deviant. You can tell everyone a pig is a horse, but most people know the difference!

otmusic
otmusic

If you want a definition of "QUEER" just look at Justice Scalia.  He is a queer man with queer ideas and does not have any idea what goes on in the real world.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Katy, thanks for this post ...and for all your work at Weds. Words and Swampland, as usual. You need to be rewarded with a dead-tree TIME cover story. Pick any topic:  word meanings + wordplay, expanding legalized gaming (your election betting swamp post today), etc. C'mon, High Sheriffs, get moving on this, please, carpe diem.


As for marriage definitions, see comments at Michael Crowley's swamp post today. A common theme is emerging: the civil / legal side of marriage vs. the religious side and how that affects marriage's meaning for anyone, straight or gay. Katy, maybe YOU can explore this further with your history and vocabulary background ...perhaps as a TIME cover story? (Am I dropping hints here?) I can see this continued theme drawing more site traffic and magazine readers.


jwchenard
jwchenard

@Crossroads For the 20-odd percent of us who don't believe in heaven, we're more concerned about our right to not be governed by laws based on a book written when the Earth was thought to be flat and women were the property of their husbands.  But thanks for worrying about us in your own quaint way.

rbsblackarrow
rbsblackarrow

@SemperFi1946 Couldn't have said it better myself man.

Semper Fi brother

3/8 India Co