Lexicon Valley

Gay Marriage? Same-Sex Marriage? How Should We Talk About Marriage Equality?

Jane Abbott Lighty, left, and Pete-e Petersen embrace after receiving the first same-sex marriage license in Washington state in 2012.  

Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

As the Supreme Court prepares to hand down a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, how should we refer to the matrimonial institution they are poised to accept or deny? The front-runner terms are gay marriage and same-sex marriage, often used interchangeably. The question has real stakes—in politics, every word counts. A number of activists are moving away from the former and toward the latter, arguing it’s both more accurate and more respectful. Should publications reporting the story, like Slate, follow suit? What if it turns out that the term that’s out of favor with the affected group is the one that’s more likely to get people to read and share a piece?

Once upon a time, assimilation was the goal of the LGBTQ movement, and gay marriage was its term of art. The alternative, same-sex marriage, was viewed as potentially damaging to the cause due to its connotations of, well, sex. Now, though, champions of marriage equality believe that gay marriage performs small and insidious distortions. It seems to ignore the fact that some of the people who might throw a same-sex wedding do not identify as gay at all—they may be bisexual, asexual, or even heterosexual. (Point being that it’s none of our business.) And to be punctiliously correct, as the writer Tom Head notes, we would actually need to redefine certain opposite-sex marriages as “gay” marriages, because they represent the union of a closeted gay person and a straight person, or two closeted gay people, or some other overt or clandestine mash-up of yens hetero and homo.

Still other activists want to scrap the term gay marriage because they find it overly freighted with negative history. “In the past, [gay marriage has] been used with derision,” marketing expert Steve Farnsworth (who knows something about branding) explained, “to mark people out as separate and different. It’s too pejorative.” Though Farnsworth thinks same-sex marriage carries less of a sting, he still prefers marriage equality as the term for the cause (as opposed to the ceremony) because “the issue is not about naming, it’s about civil rights.” I asked him if that meant he’d prefer to dissolve any linguistic distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage—to christen the whole thing marriage and move on. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied, “but I would say these discussions obscure the morality of the issue, which is that some people want to deny consenting adults a state-sanctioned right that they have no problem extending to other consenting adults.”

Eliel Cruz, a writer and LGBTQ advocate, agreed. “I dislike adding adjectives to things straight people get,” he emailed. “Right, so straight people get marriage and LGBT people get ‘gay marriage.’ But … marriage is just as much ours as it is straight Americans’.”

Fair enough, but few word-lovers would argue for a language shift that diminishes the amount of information you can convey. Having the vocabulary to capture the sort of marriage that unites two men, or two women, or a man and a woman, seems useful. (And if the sex/gender composition of the partnership is not germane to the sentence, then obviously the speaker has the option of just saying marriage.) So why not go with a trio of options like “WW/WM/MM marriage” and be done with it?

The hitch is that, while those phrases may be more sensitive and accurate, “gay marriage” is perhaps more expedient: catchier, more economical, more emotional. As Head writes, “readers are more likely to go to Google or another search engine and type gay marriage.” Added the social justice activist Murray Lipp: “ ‘Gay marriage’ has instant recognition value … it’s easy for the mind to grasp and understand. … When trying to attract supporters for a cause, rapid recognition of this kind is extremely valuable.” Slate’s own director of strategy Victoria Fine speculated that the term gay marriage “has one big thing on its side, which is collective familiarity.” She continued: “There have been brain studies that show that the more things are repeated to people over and over, or the more familiarity is cultivated, the more positive feelings are associated with that idea.”

Part of the Internet preference for gay may flow from its joyful and culturally resonant aura, versus the sterile, clinical one around same-sex. A same-sex wedding sounds like a boring taxonomic exercise; a gay wedding sounds human, touching, and fun. No one wants to watch a same-sex marriage proposal on YouTube, but a gay marriage proposal? The clicks stream in.

Yet the emotionality of gay marriage—its knack for drawing Internet eyeballs—has a dark side too. People get fired up because of “how divisive the word [gay] is, how much stigma is attached,” said Farnsworth. Consider the ways various presidential candidates (or not-quite-candidates) have broached the subject. Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom support same-sex weddings, consistently refer to marriage equality. But Ted Cruz, who opposes them, speaks of “gay marriage,” and Jeb Bush, who seems conflicted, has referred to “the gay and lesbian marriage issue.” Clearly these nomenclatural choices are far from idle.

Here at Slate, we allow all three terms: same-sex marriage, gay marriage, and marriage equality. “We prefer same-sex marriage as it’s more inclusive,” said copy editor Miriam Krule, “but we are OK with both [gay marriage and same-sex marriage] for diversity.” Fine cautioned against letting excessive, hairsplitting deference alienate potential allies: “If we want to use media to serve social movements responsibly, we must be open to trying different kinds of language to frame an issue, so we can grab the initial interest from the widest possible audience,” she said. “Using a slightly less PC term could attract a readership that might not have otherwise clicked on a more unfamiliar term. We just have to be sure the words we use aren’t actively hurting the affected group we’re writing about.”

Read more of Slate’s coverage of same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court