Since this debate on marriage and same-sex couples isn’t going away any time soon, I expect in the coming year or so I’ll be writing a fair bit about it. There isn’t a particular term I stick with when talking about it, which I understand can be confusing. But here are my thoughts on some of the more common terms used when discussing this matter.
I should mention that I don’t think any of them is ideal, which is perhaps why I chop and change, and switch about when writing. Sometimes I deliberately use one or another, but really they’re all pretty crap.
Marriage equality / equal marriage
I’ll start with the “big” one, and the one which seems to have been adopted as the “right” one. I hate it. I hate hate hate it. Not that I’m opposed to equality, of course (although I should say here that since I learned about the concept of liberation I’ve been forever giving equality activists massive side-eye), but because mostly proponents of changes to marriage legislation don’t actually advocate equality; rather just an extension of privilege.
Many view forms of marriage that include same-sex couples, but exclude trans people as unproblematic. That’s not equality. Many advocate restricting marriage to gender-binary people, and that’s not equality either. Almost all are happy restricting marriage to monogamous couples. Again, not equality. Most completely reject the notion that marriage itself is an institution based on inequality, both within a marriage, and as part of a society that affords privileges to married people that are not afforded to unmarried people. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s how we’ve decided to run our society. Maybe it’s the only administrative solution to society circa 2015. All of that may be true, but it’s not equality.
I hardly use the term marriage equality (except in tags!), and it infuriates me when people use it blindly as though equality is something that can be achieved very easily with these sort of band-aid solutions, ignoring all the inequality and injustice that is ignored or even caused by marriage and extending marriage.
Equality is not brought about just by saying the word.
Gay marriage is so problematic, but it’s the one I tend to use most, and perhaps for that reason. It’s a term that doesn’t pretend to be inclusive, or equal, or fully descriptive. That said, I don’t really like the way it aligns itself so neatly with the very real idea that gay marriage activism is almost exclusively in the realm of middle-class gay white cis men.
The term is becoming ever less acceptable, and I think (hope!) that reflects a growing realization that not all (and in fact most) people who are not heterosexual are not gay. A marriage between two bisexual women, for instance, would not accurately be described as a “gay marriage”. Neither would a marriage between, say, a heterosexual trans man (whose legally registered gender was inaccurate) and a cis woman, even though current marriage legislation excludes them.
The term excludes so many people, but it knows it does. Perhaps I shouldn’t use it, but I do – not because I think it’s in any way adequate, but because in a group of terms that are all inadequate, this one is the most inadequate.
Same-sex marriage is a term that feels so clinical to me and I don’t really like it. Perhaps it’s the most accurate, but similar to what I mentioned above, it relies heavily on cis, binary norms. It’s exclusionary, but selectively so. Many relationships that are excluded from marriage now, but would be included in any proposed changes to the Marriage Act are not “same sex” relationships. And more so than gay marriage this is a term that people use to sneakily exclude people – and as usual it’s the people who most need inclusivity.
Marriage. Just marriage.
One day, perhaps, we’ll have marriage that includes everyone, and a society where unmarried people are not discriminated against. One day we will be able to talk about marriage, and not have to specify that we’re not just talking about marriage between cishet two-people couples. One day there won’t be a distinction between man-woman marriages and other types of marriage. Unfortunately today is not that day. Where inequality exists, we have to be able to name it, but while inequality exists we can’t just say marriage without a qualifier and be understood.
Language is wholly inadequate when discussing inequality, and especially when trying to reconcile the way people actually live with an institution associated with tradition, bigotry and administration. I can’t think of any term that is adequate for talking about extending marriage to all relationships that doesn’t exclude people or lie about its intentions in some way.