Why the Word "Marriage" Matters

Written by scott on January 3rd, 2008

So here we are, thousands of gay and lesbian couples standing by the alter, or in a field of daisies, or under a gazebo, waiting for our Democratic Prince (or Princess) to come and open the doors of marriage to let us in.

We lined up in San Francisco for the slightest promise of marital bliss.  We lined up in Massachusetts for a glass half full – state marriage with no attached federal rights or responsibilities.  And this week, we lined up again in New Hampshire for official recognition of our “civil unions”.
But somehow, the phrase, “Honey, remember the day we got civilly unified?” just doesn’t have the same feeling as “Honey, remember the day we got married?” – and it’s on that one word that the whole thorny issue spins.
Sometimes a single word or phrase can change the context of an argument, and which side controls those words often controls the spin.  Look at the “war on terror”, for instance – who among us would be for terror?  But flip it around as “an unjustified invasion of a sovereign nation”, and things look quite a bit different.
One of my favorite examples of this is the abortion argument.  When I was younger, it was pro-abortion and anti-abortion, and the anti-abortion folks had the upper hand in the language war – after all, who really wants to be for something like abortion, a procedure that in the best of cases can be emotionally devastating.  But somewhere along the way, those in favor of access to abortion for women re-framed the argument.  Pro-abortion became pro-choice.  Who would be against choice?  That one change in the language had a huge effect on the ongoing debate, effectively deadlocking it by providing two symmetrically opposed arguments.
On the gay marriage front, “marriage” is the main verbal sticking point.  Many folks who generally support GLBT rights simply can’t get around the phrase “gay marriage”, either because they have a religious affiliation with the word, or because it makes them confront their distaste for what GLBT couples for in the bedroom and clashes with their romantic views of marriage, or just because it’s such a new idea.  Drop the word, and support for recognition of GLBT unions rises.
But here’s the rub.  Civil unions and domestic partnerships are wonderful ideas that confer upon gay and lesbian couples some of the same basic rights as marriage, such as the right to visit your partner in the hospital.  But these state-based laws do nothing for us on the Federal level – we still have to file taxes separately, don’t automatically inherit, and if we leave our home state, we may not even be able to visit our partners in the hospital.
But even if (and right now, it’s a big if) a Federal Civil Unions bill ever passed, granting us the same rights and responsibilities of marriage at the Federal level and at the State level, it still wouldn’t be marriage.
“Why do you have to call it marriage?” we’re often asked by straight friends.  “Why not just settle for civil union?”
The answer is complicated.
Most of us grew up in a home where finding the right person and getting married was the ideal.  We’re surrounded by the romantic iconography of marriage – I’ll date myself by saying I remember the hype around Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital.  Even gay boys and girls grow up wondering what it would be like to stand up there with that someone before all of your friends and families on what’s supposed to be our perfect day.
My partner Mark and I were there in San Francisco when they were offering gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses back in 2004.  We got married in San Francisco on March 11th, the last day, maybe two hours before a judge shut the whole thing down.  And yes, they called it marriage.
And you know what?  Even though they told us later that the whole thing meant nothing, legally, the reality is that it did mean something.
We had been domestic partners for 7 years in the eyes of the State of California, but now, for the briefest of moments, we were Married.  For a few minutes, under the dome of City Hall, we were just like everyone else.  No better, no worse.  And it was amazing.
So I’m sorry if I have a hard time giving up the word “marriage”, even if it might be politically expedient (and don’t kid yourself – even without the word, we’d still be attacked and opposed – witness the current attempt to repeal California’s Domestic Partner law, even though it specifically avoids the word marriage).
So what happens now?  I look at the current crop of Democratic candidates, and I see a stronger field than I have in decades.  Yet not one among the front leaders is for gay marriage – in the current political environment, it’s still considered a poison pill, and positions on the issue have to be carefully nuanced.
But if nothing else, I’ve learned patience these last seven years.  I will hold on to my hope that positions will continue to evolve: that John Edwards, who is “not there yet”, will get there with the help of his wonderful wife.  I will hope that Hillary will find her voice on this issue, and will remember her many gay and lesbian friends, including David Mixner, who helped get her husband into office.  And I will hope that Barack Obama will continue to be “open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided.”
And I thank both Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich for being man enough to stand up and say that gay marriage is a matter of basic equality.  They give me hope that I may yet live to see gay marriage become a reality in the United States in my lifetime.
And wouldn’t that be something.


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