Thursday, June 30, 2011

What’s in a Word?

Since the passage of gay marriage in New York State last week, I’ve been talking to friends about their reactions. Gay and straight, some people are delighted, others seem disinterested, particularly straight people who think it’s fine but it really doesn’t have anything to do with them (and are therefore not thinking of the rights issues and political implications of the matter that affect us all).

One straight woman said she’s very happy and proud of New York and cited, along with the fairness of the law, the many ways that the state/cities can benefit financially. I agree. This will be a boon to wedding-related retail goods, services and tourism (honey-moons!), which is a great side benefit of something that needed to happen for completely other reasons.

Another friend said the greatest importance is that gay couples will now have all the legal rights and privileges (and shared problems) that married straight couples have, from health care coverage, to hospital visiting and living will decisions to greater child adoption and custody rights, etc., et al. These and other practical key issues will continue to be highlighted as the fight for marriage equality continues.

The two responses that interested me the most – and which have been a large part of the marriage equality debate since it began – were the liberal woman and conservative man who both said they were fine with gay couples having the rights of marriage, but they don’t like that it is called marriage. They feel “the union of a man and a woman is the definition of marriage” argument is inviolable, he on religious grounds, she on the grounds of tradition and proper English usage. And apparently the state of Rhode Island agrees, because yesterday it legalized “civil unions” for “same-sex couples,” not gay marriage.

Although I’m an Interfaith minister, I have no religious issue with the use of the word marriage, and as a prescriptive language maven (which I wrote about extensively a few posts back), it doesn’t bother me either; published definitions of marriage of course describe it as a union between a man and a woman, because until very recently (and hardly entirely even now), gay people were not considered normal, healthy, equal persons and their relationships were not considered legal, even valid, in most places.

Using the word marriage – and the word gay – is vitally important. From a civil/human rights standpoint, as well as a legal definition, the word marriage is what makes the committed relationships of gay people equally legitimate as the committed relationships of straight people. It sends important messages: love is love, commitment is commitment, and families take many forms, no matter what combination of two persons the marriage is comprised of.

Emotionally, being two wives or two husbands is very different from referring to each other as “spouse” or “[life]-partner.” Those words have none of the romance of husband, wife (or marriage), and they fail to convey genuine intimacy and betrothed alliance between two people. Not using the word marriage makes the relationship seem lesser-than [straight marriages]. If you’re a straight, married (or even divorced) person, think about how it first felt to call someone husband or wife, to describe yourself as married. Wasn’t there a special sense of warmth, connection, and status, that came with that? Isn’t there still at least a semblance of that, even if you’ve been married for a long time?

I believe the root of the objection to the word “marriage” for gay couples is largely religious, rather than linguistic. While I believe in the importance of the stability and consistency of language in the main, I also appreciate that great social change, such as civil rights and feminism, have brought new words into the lexicon and altered others, and when that happens for such major reasons, I think language is improved, rather than degraded.

But more than religion or language, I think the idea of “gay marriage” is very new, very uncomfortable, very alien to lots of straight people – who have never met a gay person (to their knowledge). Many of them equate gay with the most outlandish participants they see in gay pride parades. Some still don’t believe people are born gay; and they certainly don’t believe that gay relationships are equal to straight ones. To them, gay marriage is an oxymoron and a cheapening of their “real” marriages. I know my two friends who dislike the use of the word marriage don’t fall into this category of less sophisticated people, but I think many do, only it’s become politically incorrect to express such ideas (which is why political correctness is such a pain in the ass and should be the antithesis of progressive thought – but that’s another post…).

The continuing fight for gay marriage is essential. But so is giving all Americans a chance to knowingly interact with gay people so they can see that gays are not freaks to be scorned or feared. And the only way that’s going to happen is if more and more people come out of the closet – to family, friends, people on the job, folks in church, the other guys on the bowling team, the other gals in the quilting and book clubs – just plain everybody everywhere. And invite these straight people to your gay weddings. Every little bit helps.


Anonymous said...

love this one! very insightful...

gamma said...

Every time another right is seen as valid, everyone, gay and straight, benefits because equality is strengthened for all.