Adam Polaski

The Semantics of 'Marriage Equality' Activism & Journalism

Filed By Adam Polaski | November 01, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: AP Style, Associated Press, gay marriage, marriage equality, National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association, NLGJA, same-sex marriage

As we well know, in our society, word choice matters, and the effectiveness with which a message or a meta-message is conveyed is very much determined by which words are chosen in that message. That's a vague understanding that we know and accept, so it's always interesting to see poll numbers and data that back up the assumption.

Take, for example, a recent poll that sought to determine public opinion in New Jersey regarding "marriage equality" and "gay marriage." The results are revealing:

Fifty-two percent of New Jersey voters believe same-sex marriages should be legal, according to today's Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.

Support for legalizing gay marriage jumps to 61 percent when the issue is framed in terms of "marriage equality," the favored description of advocates for same-sex couples.

Almost four-in-10 respondents (39 percent) oppose legalizing gay marriage while 9 percent are unsure. Twenty-seven percent are against marriage equality, while 3 percent are unfamiliar with the term and 9 percent have no opinion.

Stylebook_2011_cover.jpegI remember one of my first days on the job at The Bilerico Project back in May, where I headlined a post using "gay marriage" instead of "marriage equality," and we received comments criticizing or challenging the headline. Since then, I've been more supportive and understanding of the importance of using the "marriage equality" label over other terms.

My initial confusion over the terminology was probably rooted in my readership of other, non-LGBT-specific news. After all, mainstream news outlets - even supposedly liberal outlets like The Huffington Post - regularly use "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" in their coverage of issues of marriage equality. That's probably because those terms are approved by The Associated Press Style Book, the standard, go-to guide on word choice for journalists.

The National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association (PDF) does not even advocate for the "marriage equality term," preferring "same-sex marriage" over other variations. According to the organization's style book:

Advocates for the right to marry seek the legal rights and obligations of marriage, not a
variation of it. Often, the most neutral approach is to avoid any adjective modifying the word "marriage." For the times in which a distinction is necessary, "marriage for same-sex couples" is preferable in stories. When there is a need for shorthand description (such as in headline writing), "same-sex marriage" is preferred because it is more inclusive and more accurate than "gay."

So, Projectors, what term do you prefer? And is there or should there be a difference in the terminology that journalists, activists, and politicians should use? Sound off in the comments!

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"Marriage equality" is an oxymoron. Marriage is an institution designed to perpetuate inequality. Letting in a few more people doesn't make it equal.

Really? I understand that maintaining male dominance over women was the primary purpose of marriage historically (and remains so for most of the world today, even in Western countries, where oppostie-sex marriages are the norm), but you see same-sex marriages as promoting inequality, even those between two women? I must be missing something here.

Ned Flaherty | November 1, 2011 6:35 PM

Which term to use depends mostly on the context.

The umbrella term “marriage equality” is best for describing overall parity involving an array of sub-issues: domestic partnership, civil union, foreign spouse sponsorship, full marriage rights, and restriction-free adoption.

When arguing against the claims of homophobes, it’s best to use semantic opposites: “same-sex marriage” vs. “opposite-sex marriage.” Or “LGBT families” vs. “other families.” Or “LGBT couples” vs. “all couples.”

Ideally, every term used would, in an of itself, de-bunk one or more of the common anti-equality labels (“natural” marriage, “traditional” marriage, “sanctified” marriage, etc.) because those terms create such deep, vile, subliminally negative impressions.

Journalists, as opposed to activists, work at cross-purposes here. I don't think journalists should use the term "marriage equality" exactly because it is a term invented in the board rooms of activist groups. For that same reason, I also don't think journalists should use the term "traditional marriage," another phrase cooked up in an activist board room.

It is admittedly an imperfect solution. But journalists--even LGBT journalists--shouldn't be swallowing the language of activists but instead questioning them, even if we agree with them. A phrase like "marriage equality" isn't neutral. In this case, journalists should strive for neutrality on the hot-button issue, even if ultimately impossible to obtain.

I guess in my single-minded way I see 'marriage equality' as meaning 'equal access to entering a marriage' and not much more...

In the past I have suggested just pushing for civil unions and bypassing the term/tradition of marriage altogether. Let civil unions be for same-sex ppl, start our own traditions and give it our own meaning, let the str8s clutch at traditional marraige (man + woman, man in charge, etc). This was immmediately shot down, including by Bil.

I agree with Triplett, although I'd replace "board rooms of activist groups" with "consultants who can't write examining bad data from focus groups."

Marriage equality is an awkward term of art that most people don't understand whose definition isn't obvious - it doesn't involve equality among marriages, equality within marriage, or equality of marriage with something that isn't marriage. Our definition is at best the #4 most obvious definition, which is silly when there's perfectly serviceable terms that describe the issue: same sex marriage (since it isn't only gay people doing it), legalizing marriage between two people of the same sex, dropping gender requirements for marriage, opening marriage to same-sex couples, etc.

But I should say that I just clicked through because I saw you posted on the same poll I posted on. Since I'm no longer an editor here I don't have the ability to check if I'm posting on something someone else already covered. I wasn't responding to you, Adam!

oh, no worries Alex. I didn't see your piece until after mine was published! But you raise some really interesting points and I'd love to see them discussed here.

And now I'm seeing it's published. Haha I'll comment there.

I'm glad to see "gay marriage" a lot less often in favor of "same-sex marriage." Gay people aren't the only ones in same-sex marriage, and it dilutes the issue to frame it that way.

Marriage equality probably makes the most sense from a political perspective, but like Jessica points out, it very often isn't equal. And my pet peeve is that most of the time, so called "marriage equality advocates" will fight for their own right to get married, but have no problem closing ranks with the religious right to defend marriage from poly people.

So marriage equality would probably be my preferred term, but only if whoever is using it actually means marriage equality for everyone, as well as equality for those who are married and those who are not. Don't use the term if you mean marriage equality only for those you consider deserving.

If it's going to be same sex, why would working for "same sex" marriage rights be a good thing for transsexual or intersex people? Or, is that not an important thing to consider? What does "same sex" marriage in terms of post transsexual people mean to those who would promote that concept of advocacy instead of marriage equality?

The following is an often overlooked and not that uncommon example of what it means in terms of people who are intersex.


a quote by Jack Drescher from within the article linked to:

". . . they are born looking like girls. They are usually raised as girls and most develop adult relationships with men. Are people with AIS heterosexual because they think they are women and choose male partners? Or homosexual because they and their partners both have XY chromosomes?"

Here is the author's reply in part:

"I mean let’s face it, does being born visibly female at birth, being raised as female, having most of your body differentiate into female except the uterus (In the case of AIS) or with a uterus (In the case of Swyers) constitute some "Delusion" or "lifestyle choice" if you say "I am a woman". I think not."

I would have to agree.

So, if same sex marriage is the preferred term, who is being left out? How many implications are there to this? This is not some abstract hypothetical question. I know people who could be affected by these things. I have read of plenty more who have. Exactly who is the LGBT here to serve?

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 1, 2011 10:22 PM

I thing that the term "marriage equality" polls more favorably because it resonates not only with people who have no problem with "same sex marriage" but also those who may have problems with "the M-word" but not the concept of something by another name involving equal rights and benefits.

Copying somewhat my comment to Alex's post, I tend to use "marriage equality" when I know I'm speaking to a mostly LGBTQ audience, because it's likely they understand what I'm speaking of.

To other audiences, though, I use "same-gender marriage" instead of "same-sex marriage." Because both my wife and I are "out" regarding our respective trans statuses, I've usually already covered the sex and gender distinction to my target audience. And if I haven't, the meaning is still conveyed.

The argument is over civil marriage. Period. Use "civil marriage" when discussing denying same-sex couples the right to obtain a civil marriage.

And to be precise, it's "same-sex couples". Gay people can marry in every state in the union, and even gay couples can get married in every state, provided it's a gay man and a lesbian getting married. The legal discrimination is over gender, not sexual orientation (although clearly the practical discrimination is against gay people).

There is no such legal institution as "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage"; feel free to show me a "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" certificate in any state or DC that recognizes civil marriage for same-sex couples.

We must be precise if we want to force our opponents to be precise. They must be able to provide a compelling governmental reason to deny the right to obtain a civil marriage solely on the basis of the gender of one partner relative to the other. That's the issue, and so far, no one has been up to the task.

first paragraph by Gerald O'Connor:

Use "civil marriage" when discussing denying same-sex couples the right to obtain a civil marriage.

And to be precise, it's "same-sex couples".

last paragraph:

They must be able to provide a compelling governmental reason to deny the right to obtain a civil marriage solely on the basis of the gender of one partner relative to the other.

Within this thread are many strands tied up together. Some of the strands probably do not belong together. The reasoning is so twisted it has made a very messy knot. No one at Bilerico has been forthcoming enough to sort any of these strands out.

The first problem is the insistence that one must be precise and use the expression "same sex". At the end of the paragraph the expression, "civil marriage solely on the basis of the gender".

It is implicitly acknowledged in thread after thread at Bilerico and often explicitly stated that sex and a person's "gender" are not the same thing. One doesn't have to search too far on the web to find many references to the sex/gender distinction.

I understand that many LGB posters here and many LGB people elsewhere do not believe that the "T" needs to be attached to the LGB. There is a lot of validity to that way of thinking. If I disagree, I don't agree that the "T" should include all who it does. Then, there is the question of how the "T" in the LGBT is defined. Well, by gay people, and I think I am speaking of gay men primarily, the "T" is invariably meant to refer to "transgender".

Those who the LGBT would define as "transgender" always include people with transsexual backgrounds. All of us are told we are "equal" which has dismissive implications for people of transsexual history.

So now, as is often the case, because the issue of marriage rights is one of the most important facets of LGBT activism, the question of how to refer to the campaign to secure marriage rights is whether it should be framed as a matter of confining the focus to same sex couples.

The so called "trans activists" who write here are fond of pointing out that laws and decisions providing for the right of what people in the lesbian and gay community prefer to refer to as same sex marriage, will be a good thing for "transgender" people. They are fond of pointing out decisions such as Gardiner in Kansas, Littleton in Texas and Kantaras in Florida to make their point. Why?

Why would it be good for a person who was born transsexual to work for a legal system that will not acknowledge a legal change of sex? Marriage is not the only question of importance regarding what sex a person is legally assigned.

There is too much outright patronizing double talk, vagueness and ambiguity in just about every discussion on LGBT issues where a person of transsexual history might find themselves included. It is harmful. "T" inclusion within the LGB is extremely harmful to people with transsexual histories as questions of sex, same and opposite, are consistently rendered moot for "transgender" people. This is so patronizing, condescending and dismissive.

I think, right away, groups that purport to represent an "inclusive" LGBT ought clearly define what is meant by "sex" and what is meant when referring to "gender".

I don't fit the demographic of post transsexual people who are complaining about these things. In fact, because of my personal history, I have been insulted directly and indirectly by some of them. Issues, however, are distinct from personalities. I am supportive of marriage rights for all people not just heterosexual people or gay and lesbian people but for all. The double dealing that goes on among gay rights activists where transsexual people are concerned is outrageous. It is outrageous how many post transsexual people support the double dealing and dismissiveness. It isn't any wonder why the discussions are so acrimonious.

Sorry, I'm not a Bilerico reporter, nor am I an activist, and certainly not a "transactivist." Perhaps I am guilty of a lack of precision or a lack of sensitivity or both.

Regardless, my basic point still stands: there is no rational basis -- let alone a compelling governmental interest -- to deny the right to obtain a civil marriage on the basis of real or perceived sex, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or gender.

Does that help?

Hi Gerald,

Even though I took a couple of quotes from your comment most of my questions were not directed at you in particular.

Defining "real sex" leads to a lot of problems. "Real sex" is actually a matter of perception. Gender is a tough one. For many people, sex characteristics are not in complete alignment, Trying to explain it away by making what is involved for those people as being about gender shortchanges them.

Tobi raises a dilemma. She brings up "poly marriages". What does that imply? Polygyny and polyandry seem to encompass what is considered polygamous marriages. Here we have root words dropped leaving only a prefix and the question of whether the "poly" marriage is polygynous or polyandrous. How does gynephilic and androphilic attraction play into this? Wikipedia says "group marriage" is a form of polyamory. I am vaguely aware of Neil Cassady's menage a trois with another man and a woman. I don't know how that played out. When I was younger I was of the thinking that communal living is the ideal. I still feel the same - ideally - but I am not certain where that has really worked. I know of examples like this:

Those kind of arrangements often seem to be far less than ideal. It seems there is the need of a strong leader to hold the group together who often has megalomaniacal inclinations.

I don't know. I don't know if it would be a good thing to do away with the institution of marriage. If it is going to be kept, I think it should, at least be available to any two people who are willing to commit to each other, any being the operative word, obviating a need to define sex of gender . When people start speaking about real and perceived sex or start implying that some people have a real sex and most people "have a gender that aligns with it but there are others who have a gender that doesn't align with their sex" I think people of transsexual history AND intersex people are going to end up being shortchange and played like yo-yos.

I don't know how many other typos there are in my comment but there should at least be a comma after "at least" in my comment up above or may there shouldn't be one after should. I'm not sure.

Just for fun, I thought I would add this editorial commentary on polyamory. I've seen "Miss Wensday" do this a couple of times around town, now. The polyamory part comes about 4:25 into the video

Gosh, instead of "real" should I have said "ACTUAL or perceived sex, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or gender"? Should one just avoid mentioning the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of human beings recognize their own actual sex or gender with little problem or fanfare for fear that some few may take offense and find the categorizations problematic? Is there any construction that won't trigger alarm bells?

I would disagree that civil marriage should "be available to any two people who are willing to commit to each other." For example, there is a compelling governmental interest in limiting civil marriage by age. Most rational people would agree that allowing an adult to marry a child serves no societal interest. And since the primary purpose of civil marriage is to create a close legal kinship where one doesn't already exist, I can see a rational basis in limiting civil marriage on the basis of an existing close relationship. I can also see a rational basis for limiting civil marriage to people who aren't already married. Recognizing civil marriage regardless of sex or gender implicates no other marriages; allowing multiple-partner marriage potentially implicates any or all other marriages.

So, you expect people to use very precise language when referring to marriage.. but golly, don't anyone dare offer suggestions on better framing of language around sex and/or gender. The irony, it burns...

Look, here's my argument: whether you have a sex or not, a gender or not, real, actual, perceived, assigned, appropriated, confused, surgically altered, one, both, or no genitalia, whatever... none of these attributes should be a legal barrier to obtaining a civil marriage.

Unless you believe that any of these attributes should be the basis for denying a civil marriage, why pick an argument where none exists?

Well, of course I hadn't considered age or bigamous relationships. I was thinking about prohibitions based on sex. Of course, you have a point where age is concerned and where duplicity is involved.

Actual is a synonym for real. It means the same thing. Sex is assigned on the basis of external genitalia at birth. When it goes to court in the case of post surgical transsexual people the criteria changes. The lgbt does not recognize this kind of discrimination. Lgbt activism only recognizes transgender people, categorizes transsexual people as transgender, not as the equals of of the sex they transition to but as the equals of people who were born and assigned the sex post transsexual people transitioned from if one uses the same criteria a doctor uses when someone is born, i. e. external genitalia.

I realize it is not your problem. It's mine. Actual sex isn't easily defined for some people. My first comment contained a link demonstrating that sex does not always differentiate according to the way one would expect it to based on chromosomes. The article was written by a geneticist who worked on the human genome project at Cambridge University.

People don't have sex with their chromosomes. People have sex with their genitals, either the genitals they are born with or the ones they acquire later in life. This is an extremely important thing to consider. Why does the lgbt not make a distinction between men and women who are transsexual and those who are transgender? If a post transsexual man is having sex with another man, why is he not considered a gay man instead of a "trans" man or "transgender" man and in the case of a post transsexual woman, the same thing except the appropriate opposite?

If same sex marriage involves those who are transgender how does the lgbt movement characterize the people it groups as transgender in the fight for legal marriage rights for same sex couples? 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? The marriage issue is exactly where a position statement should be issued by the various transgender and lgbt organizations. All post transsexual people get is evasive double talk every time the question comes up.

Based on external genitalia, the genitalia I have, my "actual sex" is female. Why isn't there explicit recognition of this fact on the part of the lgbt regardless of court decisions in very conservative parts of the country? What post transsexual people get from the lgbt is salami, salami, baloney as Popeye would say. The lgbt pretends it doesn't know the difference between a hot dog, a role and a roll.

Well as for me, if you want to get married, I support your ability to do so regardless of your (or your partner's) sex, gender, real, actual, confused, perceived, assigned, surgically altered or whatever.

I support your ability to get married, too, Gerald, I am pretty certain. I am not writing an insurance contract :) so I am not even going to get into all the possible exclusions. Let's just say on the basis of sex I don't think there should be any exclusions.


Could I encourage you, when you don't understand other people's relationship structures, to ask or seek to inform yourself, rather than postulate on the "dilemma" of poly marriage.

For you it may be an academic exercise, and you might pull up all kinds of examples of abusive non-monogamous relationships, but for me it's quite personal. I've been in a triad for over 6 years. I know many other poly families that have been together for decades and have raised children. Many of my friends grew up with poly parents. These are real people to me.

Sometimes relationships fall apart. Sometimes bad things happen. But we shouldn't judge an entire population based on those instances. I know more than one person who grew up with an abusive lesbian mom. That's a reality that should be honored while at the same time not be used to condemn all lesbian parents. Similarly, I ask you not to judge my family based on religious patriarchs who abuse their power.

"Could I encourage you, when you don't understand other people's relationship structures, to ask or seek to inform yourself, rather than postulate on the "dilemma" of poly marriage."

Funny, I so often find myself making a similar request of certain ppl, though with a different scope. I think we are seeing how *that* request goes, eh? ;)

Did I make a judgement? In fact, I said I thought communal living was the ideal. I live way back in the provincial east, Tobi. Thanks for providing examples where group relationships have worked. Maybe you should enlighten others of your experience. You should write a post stating all the reasons for advocating group marriages. I think it would probably be very interesting.

As for Miss Wensday, if the video I posted is what offended you, I don't think you could comprehend what my reaction to her is. She has a fairly pushy personality, as far I can tell. She is fairly representative of the hipster attitude around here. She is an accomplished singer - jazz, standards and blues but I'm sixty and surrounded by know it alls. She is just one more know it all. It's the same wherever I go, including this place, Bilerico. C'est la vie.

You know, now that you have taken the time to address me personally, I should mention that I often have distressing experiences where I live which come from people who make assumptions about knowing more than they actually do. Usually, they are of the very patronizing variety , not the hater variety. I believe you represent COLAGE. Maybe someday I can relate how one of the founders of your organization, my next door neighbor, tried to butt into my relationship, totally unsolicited. There are presumptuous people wherever you go.

I apologize if dilemma was the wrong word to use. I think it is a dilemma, however, because I am not aware of poly marriages being discussed seriously here, at Bilerico or elsewhere, probably because group marriage is antithetical to personal undivided commitment. I won't make a judgement on partnerships based on groups greater than two, however. Any kind of a partnership involves the exclusion of those who are not partners. So, I doubt that those who complain that marriage creates inequality would be appeased. If they would be and I think there is a possibility some would, maybe many, it would be disingenuous on their part. As far as people being disingenuous at blog spaces like this is concerned it wouldn't come as a surprise to me. I doubt you have a clue as to what my frustrations are surrounding marriage. I know you couldn't possibly.

Anyway, I asked a very important question regarding same sex marriage and what sex is which when people start crowing about how it oughta be about "same sex marriage". All we have are a hundred fifty plus comments on some stupid gay Howard Stern and one where the minions are pontificating about feminine hygiene, most of whom have never douched a day in their lives.

This place is a wasteland for any transgender or transsexual person and yes, there is a difference between the two.

Aw well, if I misunderstood you then I apologize. Sometimes I have a hard time reading the intent or purpose behind what you are writing. You mentioned twice that you don't think it's possible that I could understand your position, and I think that's part of the problem. Are you writing opaquely on purpose?

Take this statement for example:

"group marriage is antithetical to personal undivided commitment. I won't make a judgement on partnerships based on groups greater than two, however."

Despite the second sentence, it is hard to understand how the first is not a judgment. I doubt you would say the same about anyone who has both a spouse and a child, or about parents who have more than one child.

But we do not need to discuss it if you don't want. I was going to address your original question when we got side tracked here. I think from a legalistic perspective, whatever word you put to it, the goal is to have legal marriage paperwork that does not reference or put stipulations on gender or sex whatsoever. For clarity's sake, we could call it gender neutral marriage, but I don't know how well that would poll, which is the other half of this discussion.

But I've definitely shared your same concerns here. Plenty of people have had marriages annulled because someone argued that they weren't really the gender or sex they said they were. I've brought up the concern that gender/sex restricted domestic partnerships create the exact same problem. Sometimes I have fears that "same-sex" marriage might be legally structured in a way to do the same thing. But every time I've seen it be done, the actual results have been a gender/sex neutral form.

Hi Toby,

I wrote another post as an addendum to the one you are replying to. I meant it to be a reply to the one you are replying to. I just forgot to push the reply button. It's at the bottom of this thread. Here is part of what I said:

"I forgot to add. I have no examples to go by where group marriages have worked. That doesn't mean that they can't. I am aware of historical examples such as the Bloomsbury Group; Satre, Beauvoir et al, and how there have been many experimental arrangements since the sixties. My relationship was an open one for four years from 1970 to 1974 but things became far less than ideal. As far as Lord Nichols, Vita West, Virginia Wolf, etc. we're talking about aristocrats. It is very difficult for open relationships to survive. Kudos to those who can make them work."

I spelled Virginia Woolf's name wrong and Lord Nicholson's, too. Sorry about that.

I could have added Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady and Jack Kerouac to that list and maybe throw Alan Ginsberg in with them.

When I was young I wanted to go West. People are pretty uptight around here. Most group relationships I have been aware of have been of the menage a trois variety with a fixed male/female couple with the occasional unattached female. My living arrangements have, very often, involved another female up until fairly recently but not in a sexual relationship. Since I was nineteen, I have lived with women when I lived in group settings except for one bisexual male and part of that time was with my the woman who is now my spouse and for a short period I stayed with he and his sister. He hated me for getting married, thought marriage was very selfish. In some ways I don't disagree with him. I have problems with trust and insecurity, though. It has to do with a life at the bottom of the pecking order whenever I involve myself with group politics. We all do what we have to in order to survive, in the end.

Oh, shoot! I meant Tobi, not "Toby" and of course Allen not "Alan" for Ginsberg.

Being a reporter myself, I often see advocacy groups and for-profit companies trying to own the conversation about a given topic by sneaking loaded terminology into their press releases, in the hopes that journalists will adopt the language and disseminate it to readers as though it were neutral. That's why we always have to keep our eyes out for language that carries opinion, even if we agree with the opinion it implies.

I forgot to add. I have no examples to go by where group marriages have worked. That doesn't mean that they can't. I am aware of historical examples such as the Bloomsbury Group; Satre, Beauvoir et al, and how there have been many experimental arrangements since the sixties. My relationship was an open one for four years from 1970 to 1974 but things became far less than ideal. As far as Lord Nichols, Vita West, Virginia Wolf, etc. we're talking about aristocrats. It is very difficult for open relationships to survive. Kudos to those who can make them work.

Also, I said:

"All we have are a hundred fifty plus comments on some stupid gay Howard Stern and one where the minions are pontificating about feminine hygiene, most of whom have never douched a day in their lives."

I meant approaching one hundred fifty comments from one post and another related post " where the minions are pontificating about feminine hygiene, most of whom have never douched a day in their lives."