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What’s in a name?


By Adam Bink

Over at AMERICABlog Gay, John Aravosis muses on the eternal debate over what to call gay marriage marriage equality same-sex marriage the freedom to marry a marriage between people of the same sex:

I find myself on the blog struggling for what word to use. Joe often prods me to change “gay” marriage to “same-sex” marriage. I’m not convinced it’s much better. I’ve at times used “marriage equality,” but I sometimes fear that it’s code that non-gay people won’t get. The thing is, it’s quite clumsy when you try to write around the phrase “gay marriage.” I’m open to suggestions, but you really need to look at a sentence the phrase is already in and then try to rewrite it.

It’s generally accepted in many quarters that “gay marriage” isn’t a smart term to use — it rubs people like, say, lesbian friends of mine the wrong way, it polls worse, and it denotes a separate institution when all people really want is to share an institution — marriage.

I find myself using “same-sex marriage” most of the time. I do find “marriage equality” to be like “LGBT” — a code among people in communities such as this but a term that requires more explanation outside of it. When I say something like “we’re looking at ballot measure on marriage equality” to a curious family member, they have no idea what I’m talking about.

I noticed that the eloquent writer to whom John links making the case against “gay marriage” doesn’t, however, suggest a term of his own, e.g., what he would use in the sentence above that I outlined. People are considering a legislative push in Washington State to legalize the freedom to marry between same-sex couples (that’s a mouthful) and I wonder what term he would use.

Your opinions?


  • 1. Bill S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:12 am

    The only appropriate, neutral terminology is "marriage between parties of the same sex." It doesn't connote bias one way or the other like "homosexual redefinition of marriage" or "marriage equality," nor does it imply a "separate-but-equal" institution. The downside is is that it's a bit unwieldy to keep repeating.

  • 2. ĶĭŗîļĺęΧҲΪ  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:30 am

    In Russian language we use the term, if I translate it verbatim, “one gender marriage” (not that it exists over here) and when you talk to somebody outside of LGBTA community people still understand what it means exactly, but, yes, they do feel like it is a separate institution and not a way to include gay and lesbian loving couples into the same institution of marriage; however, it is more due to their own personal bias against “homosexuals” rather than the result of the phrasing they are used to.

    Personally, I don't think there is a big deal about using the right phrasing; it is more important to actually talk to people about these issues and let them know what is right and fair rather than bicker over words, even though words matter. In the circumstances we are right now (with all the hate and religious bias), it is more important to deliver your message that it is all about inclusion, equality, fairness and not at all about some special homosexual rights and attempts to bring marriage down to its knees and destroy the civilization. We are not evil and we are not fighting for something that other people do not have — it should be as simple as that.

  • 3. Sagesse  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:40 am

    For what it's worth, I use marriage equality as a positive gender-neutral (inclusive?) term most of the time. I use the term same-sex marriage to describe the actual marriages when the context requires… "what is the effect of DOMA on same sex couples, or same sex marriages"

    A related complication in my mind is that I firmly believe that the fundamental constitutional civil right is an individual right 'to marry', not a 'couple right' to an artificially constructed institution called 'same sex marriage' or 'gay marriage' that is not 'marriage'. This is a semantic 'frame' used by NOM et al. The whole point is that the states that have marriage equality only have one institution… marriage.

  • 4. Paul  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:46 am

    I use "Equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian Americans" as much as possible.

  • 5. Neil Robertson  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:53 am

    I think there are two things going on here. One is the objective – marriage equality – and the other is the affected parties – same sex couples. So, if the context is implied, just marriage equality is required. If the context hasn't been set up already, then marriage equality for same sex partners. Once you've used the phrase "marriage equality for same sex partners" once, you can drop back to marriage equality for the rest of the discussion.

    Cheers, Neil.

  • 6. Martha  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:57 am

    A resolution for the" blessing of, same-gender relationships " will be submitted to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts in October of this year. "Same-gender" was used to include transgender individuals. Some thing to think about.

  • 7. EllieMurasaki  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Against whom is 'marriage equality' biased?

  • 8. yoshi  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Isn't this all a bit PC? When I hear someone who states ""Equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian Americans" I want to get as far away from that person as humanly possible. People simply do not talk that way in day to day conversations.

    Personally I use "marriage" (as in "I plan on marrying my boyfriend"). If I need to differentiate it I use "same-sex marriage". Most get it at that point and their eyes won't glaze over.

  • 9. Shannon  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Once the context is established (with "same-sex marriage" or whatever else you think is best) I think it's good to continue and repeat with "marriage equality" as a good, non-threatening term that emphasizes what we're seeking: EQUALITY.

  • 10. Bill S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:22 am

    It obviously connotes a bias in favor of legalizing marriage between parties of the same sex. It's unfortunate that this is even a debate in this country, but the fact of that matter is that is still a debate, and if you want to appear neutral you cannot refer to it as "marriage equality." Yet if you use the neutral terminology "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" you also imply that a marriage between people of the same sex is a different kind of marriage. "Marriage between parties of the same sex" is the only wording that avoids both issues.

  • 11. Bill S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:23 am

    "Gender-netural marriage laws" would probably also be a good substitute.

  • 12. Ronnie  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Marriage…. short, simple, correct……<3…Ronnie

  • 13. Mark M. (Seattle)  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Marriage…short and simple. When I talk about the actual struggle/fight, I use the term Marriage Equality
    But for me marriage is marriage….there is no Gay marriage or SS marriage…you are either married or you're not.

  • 14. VoiceOfConcern  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:57 am

    I STRONGLY prefer the term Gender Neutral Marriage. The term is inclusive to a much broader range of folks, than those who identify as gay or lesbian. Gender Neutral Marriage is inclusive to trans folk… regardless of the gender of their partner of choice. Gender Neutral Marriage is inclusive for people like myself, who are intersex. Gender Neutral Marriage allows intersex folks to marry their partner of choice, regardless of that partner's gender (male, female or intersex).

    Indeed, when one reads Judge Walker's Ruling, one key point he makes is that there no legitimate reason to limit marriage due to gender.

    In addition, the term Gender Neutral Marriage, removes the use of the potentially inflammatory terms "sex" and "gay". And I feel this is good. Being married is not about sex. Being married is not about one's sexual orientation. To me, being married is about building a life together. What it takes to successfully build a life with partner, is not Gender dependant. No. It's Gender Neutral.

  • 15. jpmassar  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Anyone found a transcript of the hearing yesterday before the NInth Circuit in LCR vs US (DADT) ?
    Or know when and/or where it will be available?

  • 16. Ann S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I use "marriage equality". I'm not as fond of "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage", but if I'm doing a Google search I usually use "gay marriage", and it probably is the more commonly used term. I dislike the connotation that it's something other than "marriage", but still I think most supporters get that it's not different.

  • 17. grod  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:12 am

    @Paul What is being sought is 'CIVIL marriage equality'. Religious marriage equality is for particularl faiths to grant or not. Its matches 'equal protection before and under the law and the due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. "Equality activists are seeking *one* concrete definition that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender." The movement needs to be on the same page with regards to language and the whys G.

  • 18. Ann S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

    I don't know that we all have to use the same language. Different language works best with different audiences.

  • 19. chris hogan  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:20 am

    call it "marriage for gay people" or "the freedom to marry for gay people" keep it short and simple and clear that this includes lesbian couples too. We're not asking for "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage", just marriage.

  • 20. Carol  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I think this an important distinction to be made in conversation. There is no "redefining" of civil marriage rights. After all, in 2008 all that happened was that forms were redesigned to make the designations of the two parties gender-neutral, in alignment with what California and much of the country have been doing for decades in eliminating gender-specific personal descriptors from the law and often from our speech. We now have mail carriers, police officers, servers (in restaurants), flight attendants, etc.

    And spouses.

  • 21. Carol  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:37 am

    The court says the audio will be up by noon today.

  • 22. Jon  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:41 am

    "marriage equality" when referring to the right.

    "same sex marriage" when referring specifically to one.

  • 23. Bill  |  September 2, 2011 at 9:44 am

    The only appropriate term for 'gay-marraige' or 'same-sex marriage' is MARRIAGE.

    In any of the states where our right to civil marriage has been recognized, our civil marriage licenses read identically to heterosexual civil marriage licenses.

    So, in fact, the only appropriate term is MARRIAGE.

  • 24. John Satchell  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Why do we have to "name" marriage??
    Why not say that 'MARRIAGE" is the union of two people who love each other??

  • 25. fiona64  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

    "Marriage between parties of the same sex" grates on me because it's passive language. I use "marriage equality" or "same-sex marriage" pretty much interchangeably when talking or writing about the matter.

  • 26. Bryce  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:17 am

    1) I personally think 'marriage equality' is best at describing our goal, and 2) off topic, but I'd like to see prop8trialtracker do a posting on the various possible outcomes of the pending motion to unseal, and the positives and negatives of each outcome. Just my two cents.

  • 27. karen in kalifornia  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:42 am

    I like. Will use.

  • 28. Brad  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:43 am

    I want what THEY have: “marriage.” Add “between 2 women or two men” or whatever you feel is needed to clarify in a given context, but I want “marriage.” (In fact I have marriage already. I now want my marriage to be civilly equal to marriages between male/female marriages.)

  • 29. Sagesse  |  September 2, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Marriage 'equality' also includes the term 'equality'. Let's not lose sight of the broader goal, which is equal treatment under the law in all respects, not just marriage.

  • 30. RebeccaRGB  |  September 2, 2011 at 11:02 am

    As a trans person, I find the favorable attitude here towards the term "same-sex" disturbing. Since exactly three years ago to this day, what the government knows me as matches my gender, not my sex. According to California law, I can actually have a "same-sex" marriage, but I cannot have a same-GENDER marriage (which is what I actually want!). I much prefer "marriage equality," though that has its own problems (its slow adoption, its perception as a code word, the fact that we're not including polyamory despite the word "equality," the slippery-slope people who think we are including polyamory, etc.). "Same-gender marriage" isn't ideal but it's a good compromise.

  • 31. Steve  |  September 2, 2011 at 11:45 am

    That's all well and fine, but the general public is very rarely aware of the difference between sex and gender

    The problem for transgender people when it comes to marriage is having their desired gender legally recognized – instead of the birth gender. Some states don't do that, which can lead to the bizarre situation of actually allowing same-sex/gender marriages in some states.

    Anyways, calling it "same-gender marriage" does nothing to make the public aware of the trans community's specific problems in this area. I somewhat like "gender-neutral marriage", but again it's just a word that does nothing to address or explain the real issues

  • 32. nightshayde  |  September 2, 2011 at 11:57 am

    I, too, prefer "Marriage Equality" — the idea that each adult should be able to legally wed the consenting adult of his/her choosing.

  • 33. Bill S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    That's fine, I'm just saying that if you have a need to come across as a neutral party (such as a news source or encyclopedia), you couldn't use "marriage equality" without appearing biased.

  • 34. Steven Barton  |  September 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I prefer to reword the sentence to say, "extend marriage to gay and lesbian people" because it conveys the idea that it is just "marriage," not something new or unfamiliar. It also hints at what is the essence of the matter: how should society treat its gay and lesbian citizens? If society is not "extending" marriage to LGBT people, then it is "withholding" marriage from them. The phrase places the civil responsibility as a choice made by society, rather than imposed upon them.

  • 35. Bill S.  |  September 2, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    As I often explain it: it's not redefining marriage, it's only changing who's allowed into the club, so to speak. Because men and women no longer have different rights and responsibilities (read: men no longer have more rights and responsibilities than women) in a marriage contract, marriage law is still administered in exactly the same manner, regardless of the sex of the parties involved.

  • 36. VoiceOfConcern  |  September 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Hi Rebecca, See my above post regarding Gender Neutral Marriage. I am not trans. But I am intersex. In my case, neither men NOR women are my opposite sex or gender. Gender Neutral Marriage is an inclusive term, that extends the concept of Marriage Equality to everyone, regardless of biological gender, gender presentation, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

  • 37. Jeff  |  September 2, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    I have been using "marriage" with no qualifier. In the circumstances where it becomes necessary to differentiate, I use "gender concordant" and "gender discordant". It pisses straight people off.

  • 38. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Eh, I kinda oscillate between marriage, gay marriage and same sex marriage depending on who I'm speaking with. I'd say I probably use gay marriage the most though.

  • 39. Greg  |  September 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I have a simple solution (inspired by that NOM blogger, whose name I have thankfully forgotten). I propose "genderful marriage" because I believe that both "same sex" and "gay" marriage cede too much ground to our opponents.


  • 40. Greg  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Of course, to counter "extending marriage to gay people", one could observe that gay people are already free to marry (as long as they don't marry someone whom they would want to marry).

    So, I propose, simply saying that we support "marriage for all." Short, sweet, and on point.

  • 41. Carpool_Cookie  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    "I use "gender concordant" and "gender discordant". It pisses straight people off. "

    Hmmm…that's a new angle to try!

    I use Marriage Equality….but it's usually in a thread or conversation where the subject's already been established. And the more people see the term, the closer they they come to absorbing it. In short conversations, or to cut to the chase, I use "gay marriage", because that's what most people understand.

    Of course, "marriage" is the best all-purpose phrase, on it's own. But, I do live in a major cosmopolitan (CA) city where people are reasonably informed about it…so don't have to start at Square One each time the topic comes up.

    I like using the simplest terms, because when a phrase becomes too weighed down with infinite all-inclusiveness, people's eyes glaze over as they try to untangle what you mean…and you've lost them.

  • 42. Neil  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    That sounds absolutely genderful!

  • 43. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I agree on the gay marriage point that it's the quickest to understand. It's often how I see it referred to in the media as well. Personally, I think it covers things nicely and is most easily recognizable. Lesbians are gay people too right?

    I think having 10 different terms to describe essentially the same thing is counter-productive.

  • 44. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Eventually it'll just be marriage anyways. 😀

  • 45. Neil  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    In normal conversation, I do not need to add any qualifier before marriage because if the discussion is about a couple, their genders are known and any qualifier is redundant.

    If the conversation is about marriage rights, I think it is likely those on the other side of the argument will be making it very obvious what people they are talking about.

    The final label should be marriage without any qualifier but I think those arguing against equal benefits need things spelled out for them very precisely. So I say same sex marriage.

  • 46. Carpool_Cookie  |  September 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    "Lesbians are gay people too right?"

    Well, they were until the 50's 60's, when gay rights groups were forming. But a lot of the men of that era, gay or not, were still very caught up in gender roles, and expected the lesbians at the meetings to make coffee, take the meeting notes, and clean up afterwards. So eventually most of them broke off to form their own all-female groups, and identified as simply Lesbian to make themselves distinct from the "gay" men.

    I know Lesbians who call themselves gay, some who identify as Lesbian, and some are fine with either term.

  • 47. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I guess I've always viewed it as all inclusive for a person who prefers the same sex. I wasn't born until the 70s so I guess I've just never seen the gender role explanations that you gave. Makes sense though but not sure whether I feel it's a pertinent distinction now.

  • 48. Carpool_Cookie  |  September 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    "I guess I've always viewed it as all inclusive for a person who prefers the same sex."

    Well, it is all inclusive…until someone says it's not.

  • 49. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    *shrug* I guess. That's just my own personal viewpoint on it. When I say gay, I'm not referring to a person's sex specifically and just their orientation.

    I will admit that I haven't had very many dealings with lesbians and the ones I have had have been less than ideal. I've always wondered why the ladies got a special title for it so thanks for that information. I'll try to make a more conscious effort to differentiate if it's offensive.

  • 50. Steve  |  September 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    That split was somewhat fixed in the 80s and 90s during the AIDS crisis

    Style guides usually recommend "gays and lesbians", but these days there are tons of women who consider themselves "gay". It's very common

  • 51. Steve  |  September 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    I doubt it's offensive to anyone but those lesbian separatists (that's what the movement was called) of the 70s. But that whole kind of thinking is pretty outdated these days. It's true that there was a real split between men and women back then, but for the most part that has been overcome.

  • 52. Martin Pal  |  September 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Bill, you wrote: “I’m just saying that if you have a need to come across as a neutral party (such as a news source or encyclopedia), you couldn’t use “marriage equality” without appearing biased.”

    I don’t understand that. Why would a news source be biased if they used the term “marriage equality?”

  • 53. DebbieC  |  September 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I refuse to use the terms "same-sex marriage" or "gay marriage" because of the implication it is somehow different or special or even less. I prefer marriage equality, or now Greg's marriage for all. (Thanks Greg! :) ) Or better yet, just plain marriage – which it will be someday.

  • 54. VoiceofCOncern  |  September 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I don't call myself gay. Nor do I call myself lesbian. Nor am I homosexual. You see, as an intersex person, terms which denote same gender attraction don't work well. Think of it this way, I am neither female (XX) nor male (XY). Thus neither women, nor men are my opposite sex or opposite gender.

    But here's the rub. I am married. And laws like Prop 8 threaten my marriage.

    Gender Neutral Marriage is a term that is inclusive to gay folks, lesbian folks, bisexual folks, trans folks and intersex folks.

  • 55. Chrys  |  September 2, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Well, actually, a few years ago I, being a lesbian, referred to myself as gay in front of a gay man I knew. I was vehemently and rather offensively told that I could not be gay, that was a term reserved for men! He was horrified that I would co-opt *his* title.

    *shrugs* It goes both ways.

    Personally, I use marriage equality or same-sex marriage most of the time. But our wedding invitations, going out the beginning of next week, just ask people to come and celebrate our marriage, with no qualifier. No qualifier is or should be needed, ultimately.

  • 56. Phillip R  |  September 2, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Can't say I've known a gay man with that viewpoint personally (or I was never aware of it).

    Congrats on the wedding! I agree completely that eventually it will just be marriage. Hope it's just the ceremony both of you are hoping for!

  • 57. socalliberal  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    As strongly opinionated as I am, I actually don't have much of an opinion on this.

  • 58. John_B_in_DC  |  September 3, 2011 at 7:10 am

    How about "marriage equality for same-sex couples" or "full marriage rights for same-sex couples"? Sure it's a bit wordy but it gets the point across unambiguously. It also helps emphasize that we ALREADY ARE couples, we are simply looking for the same legal rights and protections all married couples get.

  • 59. John_B_in_DC  |  September 3, 2011 at 7:12 am

    How about "marriage equality for same-sex couples" or "full marriage rights for same-sex couples"? Sure it's a bit wordy but it gets the point across unambiguously. It also helps emphasize that we ALREADY ARE couples, we are simply looking for the same legal rights and protections all married couples get.

  • 60. Schteve  |  September 4, 2011 at 12:37 am

    I will sometimes use different terms for different audiences. “Marriage equality” works on occasion, but generally only in LGBT circles. I almost always use “same-sex marriage”, though I am keenly aware of the downsides of that term. It does not work well for transgender and intersex individuals, nor people who just generally reject a gender binary. For most purposes, however, I find that it works the best. I will never, ever say “gay marriage”, though, simply for the fact that the people getting married need not be gay. It could apply to bisexual people, transgender people whose states don’t recognize their changed gender, or even straight people. Obviously I don’t expect many straight people to marry someone of the same sex (just as opponents shouldn’t say that current marriage laws are fair because gay people can marry someone of the opposite sex), but it is a fact that they still could. The law does not require the parties to have any specific sexual orientation or relation with one another, so I find it inappropriate to tack on such a requirement when talking about it.

    To those who prefer just saying “marriage” by itself, that’s great, but you can’t always do that. Context is needed now and then. If the New York Times came out with the headline “Supreme Court Legalizes Marriage”, we would be scratching our heads for a minute.

    @EllieMurasaki: “Against whom is ‘marriage equality’ biased?”

    It is biased against plenty of people, for example polyamorous groups and incestuous couples. Rarely when someone says “marriage equality” do they mean it to be inclusive of these groups. I’ve actually seen a handful of people object to the term “marriage equality” for this very reason. I avoid it partially for that (since people may have different ideas of what “marriage equality” really includes), but also because it’s not really all that descriptive and most people won’t know what it is.

    @Martin Pal: “I don’t understand that. Why would a news source be biased if they used the term “marriage equality?””

    Seriously? “Marriage equality” is a term used exclusively by those who support it. Using the term is, for better or worse, synonymous with favoring allowing two people of the same sex to marry.

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