Sunday, May 13, 2012

Marriage is marriage

Over the years, I’ve criticised the newsmedia when I think they’re being sloppy, shallow or inaccurate, but in doing so I’ve also pointed out that some of this is simply because of lack of resources as news organisations cut back on staff and other support. But that doesn’t excuse journalists choosing the wrong words.

If I had to pick one thing that journalists do that annoys me the most, it would be their constant use of the phrase “gay marriage” or its cousin, “same-sex marriage”. In fact, it’s neither of those: It’s marriage.

When the fight over marriage equality began—started, we often forget, by the right wing panicking that the Hawaii Supreme Court might legalise marriage for same-sex couples—it was commonly argued that if same-sex couples just didn’t insist on calling their relationships “marriage”, it might be okay. Call them “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” or whatever, just not marriage.

The intrinsic bigotry in that should be obvious: It is a “just sit in the back of the bus and be quiet; at least you get to ride!” kind of attitude. How many heterosexuals would be content with that? What made them think we would be?

That particular fight more or less ended when the rightwing began fighting and opposing any recognition of same-sex relationships by whatever name. Mitt Romney, for example, says he opposes civil unions if they are similar to marriage, but thinks we ought to be able to visit our life partner in the hospital—gee, thanks so much, Mitt.

So, the battle is now clearly over marriage itself and when same-sex couples will be allowed to marry, just like their heterosexual friends and family can. And this is why words matter: Calling it “gay marriage” sounds like it’s a different kind of marriage, a special right. If anything, civil unions/domestic partnerships already are “gay marriage”. The United Kingdom’s civil partnership, for example, is literally “gay marriage” because heterosexual couples can’t enter into one.

When the newsmedia use the phrase “gay marriage” it frames the debate as being over something different from “real” marriage. It isn’t, if course: Marriage is marriage, and the only question is, will same-sex couples have the equal right to choose marriage if they want, or will they be forced to settle for a second-class citizen separate recognition or a third-class citizen legally mandated total lack of recognition?

Fair is fair, and it’s important to note that not all journalists do this: Many do try to be accurate in their word usage. Also, it’s very easy to use such phrases as a sort of shorthand to keep news stories fast and to the point—I’ve done that myself on this blog. But it ought to be limited to when there’s a damn good reason for doing so, like a direct quote, not as shorthand. I’ve resolved to avoid using the phrase, and I challenge journalists to do the same.

Marriage is marriage. Call things by their proper names.


Anonymous said...

Well put, Arthur. I agree. To differentiate between hetero marriage and gay marriage by using the adjective 'gay' is to contribute to the problem.

But an omission in your piece here (sorry to be critical) is that the activist community *itself* often uses the term. Personally, I find this more of an offense than mainstream use of it. Why? Because to make the distinction while fighting for the right to equality is to deny that they are one and the same. When done by someone advocating equality, it is a hidden self-defeatist way of arguing.

Again, I do so agree about mainstream use of the 'separate but equal' terminology. Your 'back of the bus' line says it perfectly.


Arthur Schenck said...

Yep, agree about the activists, but my focus here was primarily the newsmedia; I'll return to the other part in another post. Thanks!