Semantics rule gay marriage debate


Thursday, April 2
MONTPELIER — Is it gay marriage or same-sex marriage? Genderless marriage or marriage equality?

In the ongoing push to let gays and lesbians marry, the choice of terms provides a good clue of where the speaker stands.

Assisted suicide vs. death with dignity. Estate tax vs. death tax. As with other hot-button social issues, the main course in the gay marriage debate comes with a side: a discussion of which words properly describe it.

'Language is critical'

"I think language is critical to any debate," says Vermont lobbyist Tim Meehan, who's not involved in the issue. "How you say it drives the train."

Vermont, which led the nation in establishing civil unions nine years ago, is weighing whether to go a step further and permit gay and lesbian couples to marry. A bill allowing same-sex marriages has been approved by the state Senate, and the House is scheduled to take it up Thursday. Gov. Jim Douglas has said he will veto it if it reaches his desk.

Supporters use the terms "marriage equality" and "freedom to marry," and speak of the bill as a civil rights measure. Opponents say that trivializes African-Americans' historic struggle against slavery and racism, and that granting same-sex couples the right would diminish traditional marriage. Gay rights advocates say traditional marriage is exactly what they want.

Stephen Cable, president of Vermont Renewal, which opposed civil unions and now is fighting same-sex marriage, said the gay rights movement had been able largely to control the terms of the debate.

"They're 15 years ahead of us in use of the language," Cable said.

He said his side is using "genderless marriage," because the language of the bill appears to make terms like husband and wife gender-neutral.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication, says gay rights supporters have the upper hand in the debate over language. The terms "marriage equality" and "freedom to marry" could be powerful, said Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The two sides are trying to gain control of words that everybody grants are positive," she said. "If you manage to get your side standing for equality and freedom, those are primal terms. They telegraph something good to everybody."

People aren't just choosing their words carefully, but punctuation marks, too.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., issued a news release this week in which it put quotation marks around the word marriage in the phrase "same-sex 'marriage'." It does the same with civil unions, questioning the legitimacy of the state's existing system of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national group Freedom to Marry, based in New York, said it's important to focus on language in the debate.

"Words matter," Wolfson said. "People who can shape a scary way of thinking about something that actually isn't scary can get otherwise fair people to go the wrong way."

As for gay marriage and civil rights, a message on the Web site of Vermont Freedom to Marry seeks volunteers by saying, "If you believe in civil rights — we need you!"

That brought a recent protest from Mia Morrison, an 18-year-old black woman from Lowell. She told the House Judiciary Committee she didn't like sharing the term civil rights.

"How can supporters of gay marriage compare their present circumstances to those of blacks?" she asked. "Gays were never considered three-fifths human. They have never been denied the right to vote, use a public drinking fountain or had to sit on the back of a bus."

Another linguistic pitfall: The term homosexual has fallen out of favor with many gays and lesbians.

"It's a very clinical, alienating term," Wolfson said. "People find it insulting and pathologizing."

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