05/14/2010 06:19 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is the Opposite of Gay Marriage?

Or, what is the opposite of same-sex marriage?

I recently suggested we call same-sex/gender marriage (or similar unions) homogamy and unions between people of different sex/gender heterogamy. (The longer version is here.) The two main complaints I get about this are: (1) it's too complicated, hard to say, too late to change, etc.; and, (2) can't we just call it "marriage"?

I have no answer to (1); I can't solve it.

As for (2), my answer is: we could, but we don't already. I don't think we need to introduce spouses, or label our marriage licenses, with the terms homogamy and heterogamy. But the fact is, in many situations we need to differentiate the sex/gender composition of marriages -- mostly in discussing the legal and social restrictions imposed on them, and attempts to overcome that injustice. (Secondarily, it is important for studies of demography, culture, etc., that differentiate family systems, but that language doesn't affect very many people.)

The New York Times page on the subject is called "Same-sex marriage." The main Wikipedia page is called "Gay marriage," although the page that lists the legal status around the world refers to it as "Same-sex marriage."

A search for "same-sex marriage" in Google produces 3 million hits, not as much as the 6.8 million for "gay marriage." Based on those counts, you'd think homogamy was more common than "opposite-sex marriage," which calls up less than 1 million, "lesbian marriage," which leads to 129,000 hits, or -- the rarest of all -- "straight marriage," which brings up a microscopic 32,000.

In a Web of Science "topic" search, there are 399 academic articles about "same-sex marriage," 128 about "gay marriage," 1 about "opposite-sex marriage" and 1 about "straight marriage."

Double or nothing

What's going on is a very common linguistic double standard, in which the term marriage is modified when it's not done according to the normal standard. And it's modified in a way -- adding "gay" or "same-sex" -- that does not produce a logical opposite. (Like the adjective ethnic doesn't have an opposite.) The opposites aren't logical because the opposite of gay is not "straight," and the opposite of "same-sex" is not "opposite-sex."

Gay men and lesbians marry people of the other sex/gender all the time. As do bisexuals, of course. Are those "straight" marriages? No. The sex/gender of the person one marries does not determine or necessarily indicate the sexual orientation of the person or couple. Nor should it -- should we have sexual orientation identified on the marriage license?

So what about same-sex and opposite sex? That doesn't work, because the sexes aren't opposites. They are narrow variations on a theme -- much more alike than the different sexes among many other animals. Sure, they play complementary roles in biological reproduction. But they are still more similar than different. The construction of opposites is more useful for socially differentiating men and women -- or boys and girls -- than it is  for biologically identifying them. So, "same-sex" is OK, but "opposite-sex" is not. Same- and opposite-gender is probably an even bigger illusion.

That's logic. But the real reason people don't say "straight marriage" and "opposite-sex marriage" much is they don't have to -- it's just marriage. That's what being the dominant group is all about.

What works about homogamy and heterogamy is they are based on "same" and "different," not "same" and "opposite." The less we have to use them the better. (Personally, I don't even "'see gender"...) But, like "interracial marriage," these exist as concepts and terms because they exist as statuses -- as social issues and things people fight over. And language is -- rightfully -- a big part of those fights.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.