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What’s In A Name? Homosexual Marriage or Marriage Equality

September 22, 2009

When it comes to something like marriage–apparently a lot.  And Stand for Marriage Maine is trying a whole new term, “homosexual marriage.”

First, a bit of background.  One of the basic arguments against same sex marriage for a long time has been, “Why not settle for civil unions?”

The reality of the distinction between “marriage” and marriage by a different name varies between states.  However, domestic partnerships and marriages do frequently differ in terms of the legal benefits–especially when you consider that the “Defense of Marriage Act” prevents these unions from being recognized in other states and on a federal level.

However, the rhetorical difference is significant also.  As many readers of this blog probably already agree–giving the rights but refusing to recognize the union as the same as that of a heterosexual relationship fits that classic (and bigoted) model of “separate, but equal.”

I don’t want churches to dictate what the state determines to be a marriage, just like I don’t want the state to determine what qualifies as marriage for churches.  If some church wants to refuse to marry a Baptist and a Muslim, that’s fine.  However, the state doesn’t have that right and it doesn’t have the right to make the church conduct that marriage.  Living in the US, we do have to be a citizen, but we don’t have to be a congregant.

All that said, there is an interesting framing war going on between the “Yes on 1” and “No on 1” sides in Maine–and in debates across the nation (framing is essentially the way you describe an issue or concept in order to elict a certain reaction; think pro-choice/pro-life or estate tax/death tax).  This issue is frequently described as one of the following three:

  • Marriage equality
  • Gay marriage
  • Same-sex marriage

Each carries its own set of connotations, and anyone who regularly follows my blog will know I use the term “marriage equality.”  I clearly have a perspective, and embrace the fact that I consider this to be a fundamental issue of fairness under the law.

There was a day, however, when the terms “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” were foreign concepts and sounded threatening to the status quo.  Now, I think these phrases have come to refer to something a lot less threatening than in 2004 when it was a decisive wedge issue.  We’re more familiar with the term, and I think–for some–that makes us more familiar with the concept.  We’ve seen gay/same sex marriages in states like Massachusetts and the world hasn’t crashed down around us.  In fact, Massachusetts now has the lowest divorce rate.

Now to Maine today.

If you’ve been watching the ads or reading the emails and press releases, you’ll notice a phrase we haven’t heard a lot before the fight over the people’s veto of LD 1020.  It’s not significantly different, but it has a twist.  Some will think I’m over analyzing, but re-framing an issue is one of the oldest tricks in the political book.  Looking on their site, you’ll see rather than using any of the above terms to describe this issue they say “homosexual marriage.”  An example from one release is here (ignore the pun regarding the inability to “shoot straight”):

No on Question 1 Campaign Claims of “Fear-mongering,
Lies and Distortions” Undercut By Their Own Legal Ally

Protect Maine Equality Can’t Shoot Straight –
Campaign Shot Ricochets To Hit Themselves In The Foot

Portland, ME – In a misguided attempt to avoid discussion of legitimate issues raised by the proposed legalization of homosexual marriage, the No on Question 1 campaign has misfired, accusing legal scholars – including a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage – of engaging in “fear-mongering, lies and distortions.” The scholars are on record of pointing out the inherent legal conflicts between the rights of people who sincerely oppose homosexual marriage and the rights of same-sex ‘married’ couples if homosexual marriage is legalized.

I don’t claim this is anything evil, but I do think it’s a very intentional and very strategic use of a new phrase that hasn’t become part of our public consciousness.  By using a slightly different descriptor than one we’re all used to, I think that Stand for Marriage Maine is hoping to raise a flag for a segment of the voting population who doesn’t have particularly strong feelings either way.  Many people are wary of change and the more foreign this issue sounds, they more likely they are to oppose it.

I certainly don’t think this is empirical proof, but it’s interesting to consider, as an indicator of what term people generally use for this issue, we can look to Google Trends.  This shows us the frequency of different search terms.

Red=Marriage Equality and Blue=Homosexual Marriage

Further, the dominant label for this is “Gay Marriage,” as seen below:

Yellow=Gay Marriage, Green=Same Sex Marriage, Red=Marriage Equality, Blue=Homosexual Marriage

Yellow=Gay Marriage, Green=Same Sex Marriage, Red=Marriage Equality, Blue=Homosexual Marriage

I don’t think this will make or break the election, but it’s something interesting worth noting.  I, for one, will keep talking about equality, because that’s what I think the law should focus on–not a person’s gender, but their humanity.

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