Writing for PinkNews Murray Lipp, administrator of the Facebook page “Gay Marriage USA”, shares his views about the differences between the terms “gay marriage” and “marriage equality”.

1. Introduction

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about “gay marriage” and the issues associated with it. Being the administrator of “Gay Marriage USA” on Facebook I am daily discussing all manner of issues relating to same-sex marriage and noticing how people view and present the issue. When I started the page in 2011 on Facebook I made a very conscious decision to include the words “gay marriage” in the title in an effort to tap into the high recognition value that this term has. Clearly identifying and labeling a cause helps greatly in getting people to support it.

In the last two years, however, on a number of occasions 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.”

I’ve always had a very strong reaction to these types of comments. I believe they are based in an erroneous understanding of the terms and a lack of acknowledgement of the powerful ways in which adjectives can be used to draw distinctions and communicate key information. Let me explain – in detail!

2. “Gay marriage”

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 in part due to mainstream media’s preference for this terminology.

The term “same-sex marriage” has technical appeal and its use can certainly help avoid disagreements about whether 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 and is utilized in this manner throughout this article.

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” (USA) or “equal marriage” (UK). While the logic behind this strategy (which will be discussed further below) is understandable it has also led to confusion as to what these different labels mean and resulted in some supporters of LGBT equality developing an unwarrantedly negative view of the phrase “gay marriage.”

Since starting “Gay Marriage USA” on Facebook two years ago I have had multiple debates with people about this very topic. While the vast majority who participate in the page are completely comfortable with the continued use of “gay marriage” as the principal way to refer to same-sex marriage some people have periodically questioned the utility of this. These contributors worry that “gay marriage” implies a sense of inferiority – or worse still, that it feeds into the lie pushed by some right-wing conservatives that LGBT people, in general, are seeking “special rights” in wanting equal access to marriage laws.

In reality, use of the term “gay marriage” does none of these things. One of the reasons for writing this article is so that I can freely link to it as my standard response to any person who raises this topic with me!

3. The power of language

Adjectives are a fundamental part of any language. These very important words help to describe the 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. Let’s take the example of hair. All people have hair (of varying amounts!) – some have black, some brown, some grey, others blonde, and some even red (me!). It is it wrong to specify a person’s hair color? Do we exclude adjectives describing hair color for fear that the added specification may offend?

No.

Highlighting differences within an overall class in no way implies that those differences should be associated with any type of superiority or inferiority. Granted, red heads have been stigmatized throughout history but as a red I will leave that discussion for another time!

Adjectives serve other functions also – they help us to make decisions. If a person wants to go to a nightclub or bar on a Saturday night to possibly meet a future partner, it will likely be of importance to them as to whether the venue they are going to caters to gay or straight people or to everyone: Is it a gay, straight, or mixed bar?

These adjectives “gay” or “straight” or “mixed” add information and help in the decision-making process. So what’s wrong with using the word “gay” in front of “marriage” to specify a type of marriage and provide more descriptive information?

While many words in language have no negative or positive connotations, others can elicit various types of emotive reactions. This is especially true when it commons to social justice issues, discrimination in society, and the language used to describe such phenomena. Opponents of LGBT 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 of LGBT equality, it has also had another impact: the demonization of the term “gay marriage.” It should come as no surprise then that some supporters of LGBT equality 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 to a cause, rapid recognition of this kind is extremely valuable, especially in today’s society in which time and attention spans are extremely 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 that “marriage” is a union between a man and woman. The added specificity of “gay marriage” both educates and helps to change such an erroneous assumption. Criticisms that the term implies separatism and/or inferiority fail to take into consideration the above three points.

4. “Marriage equality”

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” (USA) or “equal marriage” (UK), 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 more specifically it’s 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 that should never be associated with or assumed to indicate “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 but rather refers to the way in which society treats different types 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 gay or straight, then it can be said that “marriage equality” has been achieved in that state or region.

In the state of New York, for example, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2011 and at the same time it was also determined that all married couples (gay or straight) would receive equal rights and benefits. In this regard, New York both legalized “gay marriage” and achieved “marriage equality” within that state.

But while same-sex marriage is legal in New York, “marriage equality” has not been achieved in the USA more broadly because gay couples married in New York (or in any other state that has legalized same-sex marriage) do not receive the same federal rights and benefits that straight married couples receive. In fact, gay married couples in NY receive NO federal rights or benefits associated with marriage. In this case it can be said that there is an absence of “marriage equality” at the federal level in the USA.

These distinctions between “gay marriage” and “marriage equality” are critical because the latter cannot be achieved without first legalizing the former. The achievement of “marriage equality” is always a two-step process:

(1)   the legalization of same-sex marriage when it was previously not so; followed by

(2)   ensuring that the rights and benefits associated with marriage apply equally to both straight married couples and gay married couples.

Given that the two changes are almost always pursued simultaneously, some people have forgotten the importance of distinguishing between the two. Architects of “marriage equality” campaigns now typically make limited reference to “gay marriage” when framing their campaign messages and this has certainly helped with presenting the overall debate as being one about human rights.

While focusing on the overall goal of equality, however, it still remains important to recognize “gay marriage” as a real phenomenon – one which deserves a unique identity and place in society. This is not an attempt at divisive separatism – it’s an effort to acknowledge and value diversity in society.

5. The evolution of society

Society is in a continual state of flux, always evolving. So too is language. 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 well maybe then there will be less need to make distinctions between gay and straight marriage.

But there is still a long way to go in order to achieve the global legalization of “gay marriage” and the global attainment of “marriage equality.” 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 for me that will involve continued use of the term “gay marriage” and sustained efforts to educate people on how that term differs from the goal of “marriage equality.” From my perspective, “gay marriage” (as both a phenomenon and a term) is not something to be ashamed of or scorned. It is something to be proud of and embraced as an integral part of gay culture and society more broadly. So to those who have asked and will continue to ask me to stop saying “gay marriage” or to change the name of “Gay Marriage USA” you should know by now my answer: NO

Murray Lipp is the administrator of the Facebook page, Gay Marriage USA, and the Twitter account of the same name (@GayMarriageUSA).

As with all comment pieces, the views expressed may not necessarily reflect those of PinkNews