THE BLOG

The Language of Marriage Equality

12/12/2012 06:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I was just sitting around thinking about the Supreme Court, as one does when one is a lesbian who just got married and wonders whether the nation's highest judicial body might throw out the solemn vow my wife and I made (along with that of so many other people) like it was yesterday's coffee grounds. With the news from the Supreme Court following hot on the heels of the controversy over the AP discouraging the use of the term "homophobia," we are all paying a little more attention to how we are talked about. It occurred to me that I hadn't noticed what terminology the nation's media outlets have been using to talk about the upcoming cases. Would it be "gay marriage," "same-sex marriage" or something else?

A quick survey of a few of the country's major newspapers indicated that the terms "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" seem to be getting used most, and used interchangeably. In breaking news headlines the day of the announcement, for example, The New York Times pronounced, "Justices to Hear Two Challenges on Gay Marriage"; The Washington Post declared, "Supreme Court to hear same-sex marriage cases"; The Wall Street Journal reported, "High Court Will Rule on Gay Marriage"; USA Today announced, "Supreme Court to take up same-sex marriage"; and the Associate Press wrote, "Supreme Court will hear same-sex marriage cases."

Interestingly, while The New York Times used "gay marriage" in their headline, the term did not appear in the body of the article at all. Instead, a variety of terms were used, including most frequently "same-sex marriage(s)," but also "the unions," "such unions" and "such marriages." To contrast with "same-sex marriage," The New York Times also used the term "opposite-sex marriage," which I can honestly say I have not heard much, although it seems less loaded than, say, "traditional marriage."

In contrast to The New York Times, The Washington Post's choice of terminology in the title matched that in the body of the article. They used "same-sex marriage" almost exclusively, but they did use "gay marriage" once, along with "such unions." Like THe Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal's choice in the headline ("gay marriage") corresponds with the most frequently used term in the body of the article. There are a couple of tokens of "same-sex marriage," but "gay marriage" is much more frequent. Finally, while USA Today uses "same-sex marriage" in the headline, in the body of the article, "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" are used pretty equally.

Does the difference between "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" matter? Are they synonyms? Not in my book. I am not a big fan of "gay marriage," partly because of the way "gay" marginalizes all the other members of the LGBTQ community (much like some folks contend that the focus on marriage within the gay community alienates them, so maybe "gay marriage" should earn some points for honesty). George Lakoff also points out that "gay marriage" has tended to be the preferred term used by those who oppose it. In truth, though, I am not a big fan of either "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage." I personally prefer "marriage equality," which puts the focus on equal rights and avoids reinforcing the idea that there are different kinds of marriage (gay vs. straight, or same-sex vs. opposite-sex). "Marriage equality" often requires rephrasing the whole sentence and cannot be easily plugged in as a substitute for "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage."

Of course, as has been pointed out elsewhere (such as by the Propaganda Professor), the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a spectacular example of what Lakoff calls framing -- it is implied that marriage is in need of defense, which would mean that it is under attack.

In reframing the issue, organizations such as Freedom to Marry seem to have chosen to avoid the terms "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" altogether. Instead, they activate a personal liberty frame in their organization name, and also an equality frame in their description of their objective to "end federal marriage discrimination." They also call attention to the framing work that the Defense of Marriage Act does by prefacing its name with "so-called." Throughout the text on their site, while they may use the descriptor "same-sex" with "couples," they use the term "marriage" without qualification (so you'll find "exclude same-sex couples from marriage" rather than "ban gay marriage" or "ban same-sex marriage"). This usage reinforces the belief that marriage is marriage, that two types of marriage (gay, straight) do not in fact exist. Not surprisingly, the breaking Supreme Court news on the Freedom to Marry website differs from the headlines cited above. It reads, "BREAKING: SCOTUS will hear marriage cases in 2013."

Terminology is only the tip of the iceberg. The first paragraph of the USA Today article from the day of the announcement highlights how media sources might imbue the story with emotionally charged or non-neutral language: "The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up the explosive issue of same-sex marriage, thrusting itself into a policy debate that has divided federal and state governments and courts, as well as voters in nearly 40 states" (emphases mine). The emphasized elements are clearly expressive and colorful additions to capture readers' attention, but they also are certainly not neutral in nature. For whom is the issue of same-sex marriage "explosive"? Does this descriptor paint the marriage of same-sex couples as something harmful and dangerous? Also, do groups "thrust themselves into" places that they are welcome and places that they belong? Or does this expression tend to be used for unwelcome and unexpected intrusions? What does this imply in the case of the Supreme Court's decision to take up the Prop 8 and DOMA cases?

How do you feel about the different terms being used in the media coverage of the Supreme Court taking up the Prop 8 and DOMA cases? Is there a term you prefer? Is there one you avoid?