Alex Blaze

Language Doesn't Matter: Substance Does

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 01, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: glaad, language, marriage, marriage equality, poling, survey

GLAAD linked scrabble.jpgto a poll that they say shows that it's better for media outlets to use the phrase "marriage equality" instead of "gay marriage." I'm partial to the phrase "same-sex marriage" since not everyone who participates in one is gay (remember bisexuals?) and since marriage equality is a term of art that only has meaning to those in the know.

The survey GLAAD linked doesn't appear, to an objective observer, to make the point they say it makes or the writers of the press release would like to think it means. Putting aside the fact that in order to arrive at their conclusions one has to split a sample of 903 New Jersey citizens so many ways that the polling institute ends up comparing samples of as few as 31 people, the wording of the question leaves the results open to interpretation.

Here's the wording of the question presented to half the sample:

On another topic, some people say gay marriage should be legal in New Jersey. Others
oppose legalizing gay marriage. What is your position?

And here's the other wording:

On another topic, some people support marriage equality in New Jersey. Others oppose
marriage equality. What is your position?

The first wording showed 52% of adults in New Jersey were in favor of same-sex marriage; the second wording got 61%. Hence GLAAD's claim that the latter wording is better.

That requires two assumptions that I haven't seen data to support. The first assumption is that there's a large number of adults that doesn't have an opinion on same-sex marriage. While some complicated issues force people to reflect on them while they're on the phone with a pollster, there's little evidence to suggest people have never thought about queer people and marriage. In fact, that pretty much flies in the face of what we know about the politics of the issue.

Second, the claim assumes that people understand "marriage equality" to mean what the polling institute thinks it means. That's a big assumption.

True, only 3% of respondents said they weren't familiar with the phrase (and 9% gave no response), but what percentage of the people who thought they knew what "marriage equality" means actually knew what "marriage equality" means? And what percentage of people weren't sure what it meant but weren't willing to volunteer the fact that they didn't know? Choices were presented, but 3% of respondents volunteered the fact that they didn't know what the phrase meant. Usually, if one person is willing to ask a question, there's a group behind that person who's wondering the same thing but unwilling to ask.

Because it's not a phrase that most people encounter on a daily basis. Imagine an older, straight relative or acquaintance who doesn't follow politics and doesn't know much about LGBT issues. Would you imagine that person knowing what "marriage equality" means? Imagine someone who only gets their news from rightwing sources that discuss "homosexual 'marriage'"; would that person be familiar with the expression "marriage equality"?

The expression doesn't explain itself. If someone doesn't know the question refers to LGBT people, that person would probably think it means equality between marriages, which it doesn't. Allowing same-sex marriage would still leave in place inequalities between marriages along the lines of class and race that protect some people's kinship bonds more than others.

Others might think that "marriage equality" means equality within marriages; that is, equality between a husband and a wife. That's not what "marriage equality" means as we use it - legalizing same-sex marriage would leave cultural and institutional sexism in place.

This shows up in the groups that were more or less influenced by the wording of the question. People over 65 were the most influenced by question wording, jumping over 20 points in support when presented with the phrase "marriage equality." Could it be because they are less likely to have heard "marriage equality" in an gay activism context while more likely to have a good understanding of sexism within families and marriages?

Young people and those with at least some college education were the least swayed by wording. Could that be because they're more likely to follow the politics of the issue?

Why is this important? It's a little poll and people are going to go on talking about the issues as they have been.

Part of it's because I'm a nerd and I believe that knowing where we stand is important. Same-sex marriage has a slight majority in New Jersey, not an over 20-point margin.

But also titles like "Language Matters," which both GLAAD and the polling institute opted for, strike me as that sort of consultant-class group-think that places more importance on messaging and strategizing than substance and actual conversations with people.

Yes, language is important, but it's not that important.

We're not so much smarter than the rubes out there that if we just start using another phrase they'll suddenly say to themselves, "Well, I guess the idea of two men kissing isn't as gross as I thought it was!" Someone who thinks that it's wrong for two women to raise children together isn't going to change their opinion upon hearing that phrase, and the person who thinks that "marriage just is one man and one woman" isn't going to change their mind upon hearing "marriage equality" uttered.

I've posted about this before when it came to "gays and lesbians in the military" vs. "homosexuals in the military": there are no short-cuts. Being clever isn't going to win this fight.

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"But also titles like "Language Matters," which both GLAAD . . ."

Which GLAAD? The same GLAAD that puts out the media guide that erases what it means to be transsexual?

Does language matter? you betcha! It just smells to me like GLAAD is full of substance.

Alex any way you say it other than just marriage proves that same sex relationships aren't considered the norm for either sex. What I'm getting at is why don't LGB's admit they have gender variant behavior and are really what Transgender inclusion are all about. Just think how much easier it would be if you threw away the alphabet soup and lesbian, gay, and bisexual and just called it the transgender community see much better and more inclusive.

Just think how much easier it would be if you threw away the alphabet soup and lesbian, gay, and bisexual and just called it the transgender community see much better and more inclusive.

Ouch. A most palpable hit.

How is that a hit? It's not even a coherent sentence.

You have to understand Lisa. First, this is as coherent as she gets.


Just think how much easier it would be if you threw away the alphabet soup [of LGBT] and [the terms] lesbian, gay, and bisexual[,] and just called [all the gays, lesbians, bis, and transgenders] the transgender community[.] [S]ee? [M]uch better[,] and more inclusive.

The more important thing to know is that she feels that the LGB/TG* are erasing and colonizing trassexual women by applying the term 'transgender' to said transexual women, or even using the term at all. And so her agenda with this kind of comment seems to be, "See how it feels to be classified as something you don't want to be classified as, and even hate and despise?"

*You have to know the definitions, too (this all applies to trans women; trans men don't worry her those like her). Transgender means men who live as women but don't intend to have sex reassignment surgery, or men who dress as women (even on occasion, rather than full time, or maybe esp these?), or even transsexuals who *have* had SRS, but who accept the use of the term transgender.

Transsexuals, on the other had, have had SRS (or at least plan to) and reinforce rigid traditional sex/gender roles. The ones who view things like Lisa seem to be mostly attacted to str8 men, be very conservative, and in my experience, religious. The main thing is that must hate the term transgender and the ppl they consider transgender, and villify both. They are known by several names, for example, true transsexuals, women-born-transsexuals (WBTs), post-transsexuals, and women who have Harry Benjamin Syndrome (HBSers).

These transsexuals tend to be logically inconsistent, for example saying that these true transsexuals are the actual majority of trans women, but at the same time saying that the transgender 'borg' is destroying their identities. So they tend to exhibit delusion of grandeur while crying about victimhood at pretty much the same time.

Lisa, pls correct me if I have mistated you in my translation or analysis.

Regardless, and even if marriage is about inequality, if gay men have gay sex, that is, same sex sex; and lesbians have lesbian sex, that is, same sex sex; and, bi-sexual people have either same sex sex or opposite sex sex what do "transgender" people have? "Gender"???

Come on, really, do you think the push for marriage recognition among those who don't have it is not going to continue to be pursued? When the question comes down to those the LGBT characterize as "transgender", how do they fit into the "same sex" relationship scheme?

Does someone's ability to write well qualify or disqualify their recognition?

I'm sure there won't be a response to my question or careful consideration of anyone who deviates from the official party line from you or others. I am not a member of the "coterie" of LGBT mavens. People like us are irrelevant.

Regardless, and even if marriage is about inequality, if gay men have gay sex, that is, same sex sex; and lesbians have lesbian sex, that is, same sex sex; and, bi-sexual people have either same sex sex or opposite sex sex what do "transgender" people have? "Gender"???

Homosexual sex is sex with the same gender. Heterosexual sex is sex with the opposite gender.

Transgenderism has little, if anything to do with it.

If a male-to-female transgender has sex with a woman, it is lesbian sex. If said MTF has sex with a man, it is heterosexual sex.

An FTM having sex with a man is having gay sex, while an FTM having sex with a woman is having heterosexual sex.

The fact that one or both participants is transgender has nothing to do with whether the sex is straight or "gay/lesbian" or bisexual (with other men and women). To answer your question, transgender people have heterosexual sex, homosexual sex, bisexual sex, and every other kind of sex that everyone else has.

Wilberforce1 | November 1, 2011 10:34 PM

I disagree Alex. Both language and substance matter. Language matters because, yes, a positive spin like 'marraige equality' does a better job of framing the issue. But content matters even more, and it's where are leaders are hopelessly behind the competition. There are a ton of arguments that would flatten our opponents. And our leaders are not making them. Why? Because the rank and file are too self involved to research the issues or provide our leaders with serious input.

I get the point Alex is making. Of course Language does matter, at least when it comes to framing laws themselves. But when it comes to polling, I'd say they are probably closer to being split.

Personally, I'm more fond of "same-gender marriage." After all, trans and other sex/gender variant people still get married. Marriage equality does cover this as well, and it's a useful phrase among ourselves, but when speaking to people who don't follow the inside scoop of LGBTQ politics, I use same-gender marriage. Especially when describing my own nuptials.

Given that most straight people I know look puzzled when "LGBT" comes up, I'm highly doubtful that they even have an idea about what "marriage equality" means.

The problem gay people have is that they tend to overestimate how invested straight people are on said issues, and just how much they actually respect them. Florida showed the gay Mecca of South Beach just how much they're actually appreciated when Amendment 2 passed by an overwhelming 62% and over half the youth vote.

I was talking to a gay American earlier this year who's not into politics and I had to explain what "LGBT" means. Not everyone reads bilerico every day.

NOOOOO!!!!!! The horrors!!!!!

Om Kalthoum | November 2, 2011 2:55 AM

They're just not that into us. No, really. Such hubris we have to think that all the straight folk are up on the latest lingo. Even our closest and most supportive friends and allies generally are not.

So if you want good data when polling, you need to explain. Use whatever term you want, then add something along the lines of, "that is, when a man marries a man, or a woman marries a woman." Simple.

As far as GLAAD goes, I have no idea what their mission is anymore, nor do I much care. But as far as language goes, it's the last entity I'd look to as an authority.

From my upbringing, "marriage equality" was more about equality between male and female in the marriage, than gay/straight equality.

If I had never heard the expression in the context of queer politics I would have assumed that's what it means too.

At one point in history (not that long ago in the US, we're talking about pre-1970's) there were legal distinctions between what husbands and wives could do, distinctions that didn't even apply to single men and women. Those rules were used to oppress women. The Supreme Court did away with them, but they've left their mark. It's not hard to imagine that people who came to political awareness pre-1970 would think marriage equality refers to that, not same-sex marriage.

Marriage equality. Period.

I'm "married". I am in a marriage.

I am not "gay married". I am not in a "gay marriage".

Marriage equality means that the institution is granted to all, fairly and equally.

Calling it "[insert adjective here] marriage" makes it something OTHER than marriage.

Are you in a marriage, or in a marriage equality?

"Marriage equality means that the institution is granted to all, fairly and equally."

Legalizing same-sex marriage won't do that. Some marriages will be more privileged than others after all states recognize marriage between two people of the same sex. Is marriage equality bigger than same-sex marriage?

Also, doesn't calling it "[insert adjective here] equality" make it something OTHER than equality?

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 2, 2011 6:14 PM

"Some marriages will be more privileged than others after all states recognize marriage between two people of the same sex."

Alex, could you elaborate a bit on that statement? Does it mean any more than the fact that some states grant more benefits/rights to married couples under their own laws than other states do?

Robin Tyler | November 2, 2011 1:50 PM

Hi Alix:
There is no such thing as a gay drivers license, or a gay death certificate or a gay birth certificate. There is also no such thing as a gay marriage certificate, which is why we don't refer to it as 'gay marriage.' The right tried to paint our wanting marriage as a 'special' right. Therefore, 'same-sex marriage' looks like a 'special' right. We only want the equal right to get married. We also want the marriage contract recognized federally.
Therefore, what we want is 'marriage equality', in that the marriage of same-sex couples are given equal legal rights and recognition. Marriage is not just an 'equal' right, it is a civil right. Robin Tyler, original plaintiff, Tyler v California (marriage lawsuit against State of Ca. that brought State marriage equality for same-sex couples to California.)

Before this goes into the circular file I am going to ask one more time:

Don't the various activist organizations seeking same sex marriage rights owe a definitive explanation to those who are categorized as "transgender" as to how they fit in where same sex marriage is concerned?

Why isn't a policy statement issued on who the lgbt consider "the same sex" where the marriage issue and those who it groups as "transgender" is concerned.

There have been two threads running on this subject. I asked the question already in my last reply to Adam Polaski's post on the same subject. It has been filed away in the archives.

I suppose the sniping between "trans" women and gay men is more important except for the world shaping question of whether calling someone a "douche" is misogynist or not.

The same sex marriage question was raised twice within the space of a day. Where does Bilerico stand my question in the bold letters above? Where do the national organizations, lgbt and "transgender", stand as far as the question I ask is concerned? Do you seek solidarity with constituencies you don't feel as though you don't have to answer to?

First, I would like to know what this means:

"Do you seek solidarity with constituencies you don't feel as though you don't have to answer to?"

Do you mean "Does Bilerico seek solidarity with constituencies that they do not feel they have to answer to?" As in "Does Bilerico seek solidarity with groups that they ignore?"

Personally, my opinions on how trans people fit into the marriage question is as follows:

Trans people would be in opposite-sex marriages if one was cis-male/cis-female and the other trans-female/trans-male or if one was trans-male and the other trans-female. A trans individual would still be barred by conservative law against getting married to someone of the same sex as the one they identify with e.g. a trans woman would probably not be allowed to marry her female partner (trans or cis). In that case, the movement should include them, since they too are barred from equal access to government marriage licenses due to their sex.

However, it is also clear that trans individuals are barred from the rights that should come from opposite-sex marriages, as was the case with Nikki Araguz in Texas. So the issue doesn't just affect trans people in same-sex relationships. Trans people in opposite-sex relationships are also inherently discriminated against.

It seems that making marriage equal access to male-female, female-female, and male-male pairings would solve the issue of not only gay, lesbian, and bisexual marriage discrimination, but also that of trans marriage discrimination. If same-sex pairings are allowed under marriage equality, there is no justification for invalidating a marriage because a sex change or trans sexual identity is discovered or a factor in the marriage.

Hypothetically, the judge would have no platform to invalidate Nikki Arguaz's marriage because even if the court refused to acknowledge her identity as a woman, a male-male marriage would still be legal.

The only issue then would be fighting the fact that the marriage is perceived (or even categorized) as a male-male one, when that is not the case. But in terms of the access to the rights and privileges of the institution itself, those would remain. In that case, an individual like Nikki Arguaz would benefit from having all the legal entitlements of the marriage, which is good, though she'd still have to fight to get the marriage record corrected to being male-female. And that's only if the judge makes that point to begin with.

"Why isn't a policy statement issued on who the lgbt consider "the same sex" where the marriage issue and those who it groups as "transgender" is concerned."

Transgender issues are relevant to same-sex marriage only inasmuch as trans individuals are (un)able to have the government legally recognize their preferred gender identification. If the government unequivocally recognizes the gender "update," then a transgendered person can obtain a heterosexual marriage. If said transgender person desires a same-sex marriage, then for those purposes they are hardly distinct in their wants/aims from the larger same-sex marriage movement. So why make a distinction?