When I started the Facebook page "Gay Marriage USA" in 2011 there was a very conscious decision made on my part to include the words "gay marriage" in the title. This was done in an effort to take advantage of the high recognition value that the term carries. Clearly identifying and labeling a cause helps greatly in getting people to support it.
In the last two years, however, some people have asked me to either change the name of the page and/or to stop referring to the topic as "gay marriage" making comments such as: "it's not gay marriage -- it's marriage" or "it's not gay marriage -- it's marriage equality."
Clearly, not everyone shares the same understanding of the terms "gay marriage" and "marriage equality" and I think it's crucially important, in the overall quest for equal marriage rights, that the relationship between these terms is explored and articulated.
Just about everyone (even those who have no connection with or interest in gay rights politics) understands what is meant by "gay marriage" -- it's the phenomenon of two people of the same sex getting married, a woman and a woman, or a man and man.
It's not just supporters, opponents, and the disinterested, however, that instantly recognize the utility of the term "gay marriage" -- the media does also. For many years "gay marriage" has been the dominant term used by newspapers and television stations when reporting on stories about marriage between people of the same sex. Rightly or wrongly, "gay marriage" now has extremely high public recognition and consumption value.
The term "same-sex marriage" has technical appeal and its use can certainly help avoid disagreements about whether or not the word "gay" should be used as a blanket term for same-sex attraction. "Same-sex marriage" is also widely used as a synonym for "gay marriage" to help avoid language repetition.
In general, however, it is the phrase "gay marriage" -- and not "same-sex marriage" -- which has dominated public discourse when discussion turns to marriage between persons of the same sex.
In recent years there has been a growing trend by gay rights organizations, and politicians pursuing changes in marriage laws, to downplay the words "gay marriage" and to focus instead on "marriage equality." While the logic behind this strategy is understandable it has also led to confusion as to what these different labels mean and has resulted in some supporters of same-sex marriage developing an unwarrantedly negative view of the phrase "gay marriage."
Those who oppose using "gay marriage" as the principal way to reference same-sex marriage worry that the term implies a sense of inferiority. They also express concern that "gay marriage" fuels the lie pushed by some right-wing conservatives that gay couples are seeking "special rights" in regards to marriage laws. In reality, use of the term "gay marriage" does none of these things.
The Power of Language
Adjectives are a key part of language. These important words help to describe differences between similar things. They bring visibility to the diversity that exists in just about every aspect of human existence. Without adjectives language would have considerably less communicative value. Placing the word "gay" in front of "marriage" provides useful descriptive information.
While many words in language have no negative or positive connotations, others can elicit strong reactions. This is especially true when it comes to social justice issues, discrimination in society, and the language used to describe such phenomena. Opponents of equality have over the years gone to great lengths to demonize same-sex marriage and to position "gay marriage" as a phenomenon which is inherently inferior to marriage between a man and woman. For those who hold homophobic views and who believe they "own" the institution of marriage, "gay marriage" is something bad, something less than, something to be scorned.
Related to this, campaigns for the legalization of same-sex marriage increasingly downplay the "gay" aspect and focus more on "marriage equality," which in large part is an effort to avoid having to deal with the very real stigma that is often linked with all things "gay." While this strategy to neutralize stigma has no doubt helped fuel the success of some of these campaigns, and drawn in more straight supporters, it has also had another impact: the demonization of the term "gay marriage." It should come as no surprise then that some supporters of same-sex marriage have internalized this and developed a negative view of the term.
There are number of reasons why "gay marriage" remains a powerful and very useful way to refer to marriage between people of the same sex. As previously outlined, "gay marriage" has instant recognition value -- people know what it means -- it's easy for the mind to grasp and understand the concept. When discussing any issue, and especially when trying to attract supporters for a cause, rapid recognition of this kind is extremely valuable, especially in today's society in which time and attention spans are limited.
Secondly, "gay marriage" brings visibility to the phenomenon. It instills the notion that legal marriage between people of the same sex is a reality in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world. Language's role in illuminating a phenomenon in this way is especially important in places where that phenomenon (in this case, "gay marriage") is still not legally sanctioned.
Thirdly, referring to the phenomenon as "gay marriage" helps challenge and chip away at the extremely powerful assumption, and dominant view in many places around the world, that "marriage" is solely a union between a man and woman. The added specificity of "gay marriage" helps to challenge this erroneous and biased assumption.
Many people confuse the terms "gay marriage" and "marriage equality," often using them in a synonymous manner. They are clearly related concepts but they are not interchangeable.
"Gay marriage" refers to the actual phenomenon of same-sex marriage, the legal union between two people of the same sex. It's something which is legal or not in any given part of the world. "Marriage equality," on the other hand, refers to the equal allocation of rights and benefits to all married couples, regardless of whether those couples are opposite-sex or same-sex. It does not describe a type of marriage. It describes an outcome, an achievement or goal, that being the attainment of equality.
When a same sex couple marries, yes it's a "marriage," but it can also be described as a "gay marriage" -- the adjective "gay" adds further descriptive value which may have significant communicative utility depending on the context. Using the word "gay" helps specify difference but it does not imply "better than" or "less than." Furthermore, when a same-sex couple marries that marriage is not called "marriage equality" -- the term does not describe a type of marriage.
The attainment of "marriage equality" is impossible without "gay marriage" first being legalized. When a given state or country legalizes same-sex marriage and additionally provides equal rights and benefits to all married couples irrespective of whether a couple is same-sex or opposite-sex, then it can be said that "marriage equality" has been achieved in that region. While "gay marriage" is now legal in various states of the USA, "marriage equality" has not yet been achieved in the USA nationally as the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages.
In this regard it is crucial to acknowledge the differences between "gay marriage" and "marriage equality." Architects of "marriage equality" campaigns now typically make limited reference to "gay marriage." While this overall focus on equality is constructive it still remains important, however, to recognize "gay marriage" as a real phenomenon (one which deserves a unique identity and place in society) and to understand that its legalization doesn't automatically lead to the achievement of "marriage equality."
While it seems like an impossible dream, there is certainly the hope that one day "gay marriage" will be legal throughout the entire world. If that ever happens there will perhaps then be less need to make distinctions between gay and straight marriage.
Until such time it will remain important to continue drawing visibility to the phenomenon of "gay marriage" and to the reality that it is not legal in the vast majority of countries around the world or in the vast majority of states of the USA.
One way to do that is through language and the continued use of the term "gay marriage" and how it relates to and differs from "marriage equality." While the achievement of "marriage equality" is the overall goal, "gay marriage" (as both a phenomenon and a term) is not something to be ashamed of or scorned as we travel on the path towards full equality. It is something to be proud of and embraced as an integral part of gay culture and society more broadly.