Gay Marriage: What's In A Word

What's in a word? Plenty, if the word is “marriage.”

Marriage is central to our culture. Marriage legally confers over 600 benefits, but that is only its material aspect. Marriage is an institution, the public expression of lifelong commitment based on love.

It is the culmination of a period of seeking a mate, and, for many, the realization of a major goal, often with a build-up of dreams, dates, gossip, anxiety, engagement, shower, wedding plans, rituals, invitations, bridal gown, bridesmaids, families coming together, vows, and a honeymoon. Marriage is the beginning of family life, commonly with the expectation of children and grandchildren, family gatherings, in-laws, little league games, graduations, and all the rest.

Marriage is also understood in terms of dozens of deep and abiding metaphors: a journey through life together, a partnership, a union, a bond, a single object of complementary parts, a haven, a means for growth, a sacrament, a home. Marriage confers a social status — a married couple with new social roles. And for a great many people, marriage legitimizes sex. In short, marriage is a big deal.

Like most important concepts, marriage comes with a variety of prototypical cases: The ideal marriage is happy, lasting, prosperous, with children, a nice home, and friendships with other married couples. The typical marriage has its ups and downs, its joys and difficulties, typical problems with children and in-laws. The nightmare marriage ends in divorce, due perhaps to incompatibility, abuse, or betrayal. It is a rich concept with a cultural stereotype: it is between a man and a woman.

Because marriage is central to family life, it has a political dimension. As I discuss in my book Moral Politics, conservative and progressive politics are organized around two very different models of married life: a strict father family and a nurturing parent family.

The strict father is moral authority and master of the household, dominating both the mother and children and imposing needed discipline. Contemporary conservative politics turns these family values into political values: hierarchical authority, individual discipline, military might. Marriage in the strict father family must be heterosexual marriage: the father is manly, strong, decisive, dominating — a role model for sons and a model for daughters of a man to look up to.

The nurturing parent model has two equal parents, whose job is to nurture their children and teach their children to nurture others. Nurturance has two dimensions: empathy and responsibility, for oneself and others. Responsibility requires strength and competence. The strong nurturing parent is protective and caring, builds trust and connection, promotes family happiness and fulfillment, fairness, freedom, openness, cooperation, community development. These are the values of a strong progressive politics. Though the stereotype again is heterosexual, there is nothing in the nurturing family model to rule out same-sex marriage.


Choosing Our Values and Words Carefully


In a society divided down the middle by these two family models and their politics, we can see why the issue of same-sex marriage is so volatile. What is at stake is more than the material benefits of marriage and the use of the word. At stake is one's identity and most central values. This is not just about same-sex couples. It is about which values will dominate in our society.

When conservatives speak of the “defense of marriage,” liberals are baffled. After all, no individual's marriage is being threatened. It's just that more marriages are being allowed. But conservatives see the strict father family, and with it, their political values as under attack. They are right. This is a serious matter for their politics and moral values as a whole. Even civil unions are threatening, since they create families that cannot be traditional strict father families.

Progressives are of two minds. Pragmatic liberals see the issue as one of benefits — inheritance, health care, adoption, etc. If that's all that is involved, civil unions should be sufficient — and they certainly are an advance. Civil unions would provide equal material protection under the law. Why not leave civil unions to the state and marriage to the churches, as in Vermont?

Idealistic progressives see beyond the material benefits, important as they are. Most gay activists want more than civil unions. They want full-blown marriage, with all its cultural meanings — a public commitment based on love, all the metaphors, all the rituals, joys, heartaches, family experiences — and a sense of normality, on a par with all other people. The issue is one of personal freedom: the state should not dictate who should marry whom. It is also a matter of fairness and human dignity. Equality under the law includes social and cultural, as well as material benefits. The slogan here is “freedom to marry.”

Language is important. The radical right uses “gay marriage.” Polls show most Americans overwhelmingly against anti-gay discrimination, but equally against “gay marriage.” One reason, I believe, is that “marriage” evokes the idea of sex and most Americans do not favor gay sex. Another is that the stereotype of marriage is heterosexual. “Gay” for the right connotes a wild, deviant, sexually irresponsible lifestyle. That's why the right prefers “gay marriage” to “same-sex marriage.”

But “gay marriage” is a double-edged sword. President Bush chose not to use the words “gay marriage” in his State of the Union Address. I suspect that the omission occurred for a good reason. His position is that “marriage” is defined as between a man and a woman, and so the term “gay marriage” should be an oxymoron, as meaningless as “gay apple” or “gay telephone.” The more “gay marriage” is used, the more normal the idea of same-sex marriage becomes, and the clearer it becomes that “marriage” is not defined to exclude the very possibility. This is exactly why some gay activists want to use “same-sex marriage” or even “gay marriage.”


Playing Fair on the Political Playground


The Democratic presidential nominees are trying to sidestep the issue. Kerry and Dean claim marriage is a matter for the church, while the proper role for the state is civil unions and a guarantee of material benefits. This argument makes little sense to me. The ability of ministers, priests, and rabbis to perform marriage ceremonies is granted by governments, not by religions. And civil marriage is normal and widespread. Besides, it will only satisfy the pragmatic liberals. Idealistic conservatives will see civil unions as tantamount to marriage, and idealistic progressives will see them as falling far short of equal protection. It may work in Vermont and perhaps in Massachusetts, but it remains to be seen whether such an attempt to get around the issue will play in most of the country.

And what of the constitutional amendment to define marriage legally as between a man and a woman? Conservatives will be for it, and many others with a heterosexual stereotype of marriage may support it. But it's unlikely to get enough progressive support to pass. The real question is, will the very proposal of such an amendment help George Bush keep the White House?

It's hard to tell right now. But the progressives who are not running for office can do a lot. Progressives need to reclaim the moral high ground — of the grand American tradition of freedom, fairness, human dignity, and full equality under the law. If they are pragmatic liberals, they can talk this way about the civil unions and material benefits. If they are idealistic progressives, they can use the same language to talk about the social and cultural, as well as the material benefits of marriage. Either way, our job as ordinary citizens is to reframe the debate, in everything we say and write, in terms of our moral principles.

The rest of us have to put our ideas out there so that candidates can readily refer to them. For example, when there is a discussion in your office, church, or other group, there is a simple response to someone who says, “I don't think gays should be able to marry, do you?” The response is, “I believe in equal rights, period. I don't think the state should be in the business of telling people who they can or can't marry.” The media does not have to accept the right wing's frames. What can a reporter ask besides “Do you support gay marriage?” Try this: “In San Francisco, there has been a lot discussion of the freedom to marry, as a matter of equal rights under the law. How do you feel about this?”

Reframing is everybody's job.

George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, is author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. This article originally appeared on Alternet, February 18, 2004.