A very strong engagement
The government should eliminate the term “marriage” in order to achieve civic equality for all couples
For a short time this spring, after President Obama announced his support for gay marriage, it looked like the issue could become very significant to the election. But because the economy, jobs, and health care have dominated most of the candidates’ time, this issue — while still highly controversial– has not been at the forefront of either campaign. As a strong supporter of marriage equality, I find that disappointing — although several state campaigns for changes to existing marriage law in places like Minnesota and Maryland have made some headlines. But I also think that supporters of gay rights should consider an alternative to demanding that the government recognize the marriages of both gay and straight couples: avoid the culturally loaded word “marriage” and seek equality by demanding the government not recognize “marriage” at all.
This sounds extreme, but I don’t think it is if you look at it closely. There obviously needs to be a system in place where couples can have their relationship acknowledged by the government, for tax purposes, for raising children in co-guardianship, for hospital visitation rights, and all of the other reasons that people choose to get married. But for the purposes of the government, the word “marriage” does not need to be included.
“Marriage” is a primarily cultural word, rooted in religion and society but not necessarily the state. For many — while certainly not all — opponents of gay marriage, this is the main issue, as religious belief and cultural tradition are often inflexible to social change. “Marriage” means a lot more in this context than the rights listed above, and people don’t want an institution so wrapped up in their cultural and religious heritage to change in a significant way.
Personally, I don’t think this is a legitimate reason to deny a loving couple the right to say they’re married, but the point is this is not an argument that even needs to be discussed. Allow each couple, gay and straight, to get a civil union from the state, and then decide what church or synagogue or mosque or cultural center to get “married” in. Each institution is not forced to perform a ceremony it doesn’t agree with, no one is robbed of the right to all the legal benefits marriage currently provides, and all couples have opportunities to get “married” in a community that chooses to welcome them.
People on both sides of the issue will probably have problems with this proposal. I’m sure some people agree with me that a civil union can provide the same legal rights to couples as marriage does presently, and would suggest merely granting them to gay couples without changing the system for traditional marriage. But there is a troubling philosophy behind this suggestion: that two co-existing and separate institutions can provide the same service equally to different people divided by some superficial characteristic. “Separate but equal” sounds great but simply doesn’t work, and it leads to discrimination and lack of understanding. Words are powerful, and as long as different ones are used to describe gay and straight unions, they will be used to suppress the rights of same-sex couples.
Coming at this from another perspective, I’m sure people think this proposal misses the point of the gay rights movement. If people are not accepting of the equality and legitimacy of gay couples, then discrimination will occur, regardless of any changes to governmental language. And I would agree, to a point. There will probably always be those who are prejudiced and homophobic, just as there will always be racists and sexists and people who refuse to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of their fellow human beings. But I think many current opponents of same-sex marriage are not so much prejudiced as ignorant. By allowing them to define within their cultural and religious groups what the word “marriage” means without interference from the government, while still providing equality to all couples in the eyes of the state, they might feel less threatened and more open to learning and even changing their views over time, without forcing gay partnerships to be second-class in the meantime. This change is already happening, it is just occurring slowly. So why attempt to override these people, and push them to defensively entrench themselves in misguided perceptions when there is a possibility to address this disparity without the government proclaiming a new definition of “marriage”? The fight against homophobia and discrimination can continue while avoiding an unnecessary conflict over the use of a single word by the government.
Forrest Brown is a Viewpoint writer.