On the difference between "same-sex marriage" and "marriage equality"

This is going to be fairly brief, but I hope raises an important point. There is a substantial difference between referring to yesterday’s epic win in New York as a victory for “same-sex marriage” and referring to it as a victory for “marriage equality.”

Politics operates around language — “conservatives” and members of the Republican party typically realize this better than progressives do. Excessive use of scare quotes, I realize, but concepts like the “war on terror,” which never was a war and rarely focused on actual radicals intent on committing acts of terrorism was and has been an extremely powerful political concept focused almost entirely on a phrase that captures the imagination in a compelling way. Language games get tricky — those of us who get physically ill when encountering the concept of “framing” understand this quite well. Yet, as icky as it may be, framing is critically important (even if vaguely Orwellian) when trying to make a political point or to advance an issue through the political process.

There is no actual distinction between “same-sex marriage” and “marriage equality” — both terms refer to a legislative or judicial removal of the restriction prevalent now in 44 states that prohibits two individuals of the same gender to enact a legal procedure by which they are permanently linked (unless later dissolved) and enjoy the rights and benefits that state allows to two individuals who make that decision. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), of course, denies those rights and benefits to any same-gender couple federally, regardless of state law.

Yet, there is a distinction — and an important one — between those terms. “Same-sex marriage,” again, is functionally no different from “marriage equality,” yet marriage equality presents the entire point of the LGBT rights movement in its essential form, and in a way “same-sex marriage” doesn’t. The point being equality. Same-sex marriage isn’t a special right that should be afforded to a defined and differentiated class of individuals. It’s the same fundamental and equal right states and the federal government afford to opposite-sex couples willing to accord their relationship a legal status. It’s the right to formalize love and commitment. I assume most of us here, and most progressives in general, recognize that gender is entirely incidental when it comes to that point — marriage being a legal recognition of two individuals’ commitment to one another.

So let’s call it for what it is — marriage equality. And civil rights. Words do matter, and this fight — despite last night’s amazing victory — is far from over. It’s only getting started, and as always, the power of bigotry is strong and mobilized. This is a battle worth picking, and language matters.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

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~ by Benji on 25 June 2011.

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