Gwynn: “Gay Marriage” is an incorrect term

It’s not news that college students have a tendency to use language incorrectly, or improperly, or just kind of stupidly (that’s how half of all hashtags are invented). Particularly, there’s an inclination to use language that implies a meaning very different from what the speaker actually intends.

There are plenty examples of this that really irk the English major within me who sometimes just wants to take a red pen to the world: using irony as a synonym for coincidence, claiming a test is going to “literally” kill you when, if this was true, I’d be really concerned for the kind of classes you’re paying for, and the fact that 75 percent of all the people I know apparently missed first grade grammar as they still use “there” “their” and “they’re” interchangeably.

All these misuses of language are the equivalent of nails against a chalkboard for me—a chalkboard that murders all I hold dear in the world. Yet, the type of misuse of language that not only irks, but concerns me? A misuse I hear frequently on campus, even from the mouths of intelligent, sensitive, totally-paid-attention-in-first-grade people?

When people say “gay marriage” instead of “marriage equality.”

See, when someone says they’re “for gay marriage”, I get that they mean marriage equality. I get that they support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Questioning, or LGBTQ, community. I get they want people to be free to do what they want, legalize love, rainbows on wedding cakes—the whole progressive, beautiful shebang. I know they’re probably someone who either, one, cares about equality for humankind or two, thinks it’s none of their damn business who somebody wants to spend the rest of their life with. Either way, they’re on the right track.

But saying “gay marriage” rather than “marriage equality” excludes and erases the identities of a whole lot of people.
Maybe you’re asking yourself, “but whatever could be wrong with saying you’re ‘for gay marriage?’ What’s the difference between ‘marriage equality’ and ‘gay marriage’ anyway—they’re the same thing right?”

Except no. They’re not.

Say you have two women, both of who identify as lesbians. They meet each other, bond over KU basketball, “Doctor Who,” and their mutual adoration of pugs. They fall in love and decide to get married. I’m going to be optimistic for theirs’ and our theoretical future and say they are legally allowed to get married wherever they are. They both identify as gay. They could be said to have a “gay” marriage.

Now let’s take this same fictional couple and have everything about them and their relationship stay exactly the same except for one thing: one of them identifies as bisexual. Our bisexual lady in question is still in love with a lady. She still totally wants to marry this lady. She does marry this lady. These are two ladies, married, completely in love, and so freaking cute that sometimes people just stop and think, “what a cute gay couple–yay for gay marriage!”

The thing is, one of these ladies is not gay—she’s bi and her sexual orientation doesn’t alter depending on the gender identity of the person she happens to date, sleep with, love or marry. Maybe she’s okay with you calling her marriage gay. Maybe she’s not. It’s better not to presume because presuming usually means unintentional douchebag behavior, and act according to the latter.

Guess what you can say to communicate advocating for both these awesome fake couples’ access to equal rights?

If you said “I’m for marriage equality,” you probably aced first grade English, didn’t you?

“The term ‘gay Marriage’ makes identities beyond ‘gay’ invisible. ‘Marriage Equality’ acknowledges those various identities, but also would expand the political efficacy of the movement and include, for example, people who don’t have citizenship, trans individuals, bisexuals, polyamorous people, asexuals, and more,” Liam Lair said, a graduate student in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department.

There are plenty of people who are not legally able to access marriage in the United States who do not identify as gay. After all, there’s more to LGBTQ than the L and the G. The B and the T and the Q, and all those identities that aren’t even encompassed by a catchy little umbrella acronym? They still exist, and they’re still valid, and some of those people want to get married too.

You want to be for gay marriage? Sweet, me too. But please don’t ignore trans marriage, bisexual marriage, pansexual marriage, or any kind of marriage along the way.

Gwynn is a sophomore majoring in English and women, gender, and sexuality from Olathe. Follow her on twitter @AllidoisGwynn.

  • Updated Sep. 9, 2012 at 9:13 pm
  • jordan

    i knew an article like this would have to come eventually. i know your point, and i’ve thought the same thing. but anticipate a lot of “ugh”s and whatnot in response, since well, most college students may use words incorrectly but most college students also know what they mean. and we know to critique. i still google “gay marriage news” for now, but obviously the term should be marriage equality.

  • Gay guy dating a pansexual

    Yes, let’s split hairs. I bet you also groan when someone says “Awesome,” but don’t explicitly mean “to inspire awe.” If people know what you mean, and its intention is to not be discriminatory, then the term is serving its purpose.

    Your example is incredibly lackluster as well. So what you’re telling me
    is that in order for me to be non-offensive, I need to go up to said
    female-female couple, and then ask them, “Excuse me, I want to
    congratulate you on your status as a same sex couple, may I please
    inquire as to what your sexual orientations and gender identities so
    that I may not improperly label you?” I have to invade their private lives so that I can think correctly?

    This entire article is incredibly pedantic, and it speaks down to the very people we need on our side. If the party present is capable of handling two males or two females being married, that’s all I need and expect from them. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to explain that although I’m gay, my boyfriend is pansexual to each person that says they’re for gay marriage.

    Give us our rights, THEN we can start splitting hairs, please!

  • Carlos Mitchell

    The correct term, according to the AP Stylebook, would be “marriage for gays and lesbians”. So Gwynn only has it half-right.

  • Glenn Barkan

    I agree with the sentiment, but with different reasoning. I admit that I didn’t think about all the committed couples that were excluded by the term ‘gay marriage’. What bothered me is that is creates an unnecessary distinction. My husband and I do not have a “gay marriage”, we have a marriage. Like the quote goes, I didn’t “gay park my car”, I just parked it.

  • dthomasg

    This is a difficult and possibly fruitless battle to fight, especially when TV newscasts use gay marriage as the term du jour. Lead by example, certainly, and maybe people will pick up on it. I usually talk about access to marriage, to make it as neutral as possible when I’m teaching.

  • Thisarticle Boredme

    Gwynn–you’re quibbling. Whether the woman you mention self-identifies as bisexual or not, the fact remains that she’s in a homosexual relationship. That alone makes the hypothetical marriage a “gay” marriage, and it isn’t demeaning to her bisexuality to refer to it as such.

    The statement that one is “for gay marriage” isn’t a mindlessly careless one that somehow implies that those rights are intended only for purely homosexual adults. That’s absurd.

    While you’re addressing the “LGBT” acronym, I’d personally argue that the differentiation between “gay” and “lesbian” is unproductive, and hardly agreed upon by all, and serves only to divide the larger gay commmunity–which should be synonymous with the “queer community,” and with the “LGBTQ…BBQ” community.

  • Natasha

    I’m going to get married one day, not gay married! Until the media, proponents, and gays alike stop over-defining our plight for equality, we will never attain marriage equality.

  • Jagger

    Well hopefully one day we don’t have to use ‘gay’ or ‘equality’ to mean the same and equal. We can simply say ‘marriage’ or ‘married’ and people just know. We don’t say “Straight Marriage” so why should we say ‘gay marriage’?

  • Lj Rhodes

    Also, using “marriage equality” makes it much more apparent what opponents of marriage equality are actually opposing: equal rights. It makes it much harder for them to defend their positions, because there’s simply no defense for opposing them.

  • Forwardpride

    I prefer the term “marriage equality” because it sends a clear message that gets at the heart of the issue. It’s about equal rights, because we’re not second-class citizens; we are equal to straight people. I’m a bisexual man happily married to a bisexual woman. I’m happy to be referred to casually as “gay” because, by my definition, being the “B” in the “GLBT” makes me part of the “gay” community. My standard joke is that I’m “half gay on my mother’s side of the family.” I would not be offended if my marriage was referred to as a “gay marriage.” I will say that marriage equality will make ALL marriages more valid because straight people will no longer be demeaned by having Special Rights. White males used to be the only ones allowed to vote in America; this “privilege” actually demeaned them, whether they knew it or not, because the vote has more meaning once all citizens can exercise it.

  • hyhybt

    In general, “marriage equality” is better. In certain contexts, though, “gay marriage” is either clearer or less distracting. (It’s also a more effective search term if you’re looking for news on the subject.) Anyway, it’s generally best not to get *too* hung up on names, unless you’re speaking with people who already agree with you on principles (or are using really obnoxious terms like “counterfeit marriage”)

  • Bobby Davis

    How useful. Now, to be politically correct we have to presume 20 extra minutes with a bigot to explain our meaning. It’s such a productive use of time to bore someone who already hates you, with the extra benefit of alienating those who are on your own side because they are not as ‘correct as thou’. I can say that, as a man in a wheelchair, calling me handi-capable over handicapped or disabled has yet to make me walk.

  • Jordan Skeloric Zabel

    Also, look to the past… When the term “Gay Cancer” existed. How many years of zero help occurred because of the term? If people thought, “Oh, its a cancer that only happens to gay people,” it was a guarantee they probably wouldn’t care.
    People are much more accepting of “Equality” than they are “Gay People”.
    People came out in support of Dan Cathy on “Freedom of Speech.”
    If they had stopped to really take us out of the equation and instead thought of his actions as being equivalent to donating to the the KKK or “Skinheads”, they’d likely be sickened and appalled.
    instead, it was ‘Freedom of Speech” and they support FREEDOM.
    Words do matter as the story points out.
    Its like threading the needle some times, but it can be very rewarding.

  • Mark

    If two people of the same gender get married, it’s technically a Gay regardless of the identities of the individuals. If we insist on the more bland term “marriage equality” the opponents can argue that same gender marriage is the camel’s nose under the tent and next will come polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, and inter-species marriages. Not saying this is the case, but it has been an effective argument by the far Right. I think we should be clear that what we are talking about is the right for two people of the same legal gender to marry each other and not keep it so ambiguous that other aspects of the issue will keep gay marriage illegal.

  • jonohaz

    Also gay people can theoretically get married, just not to a member of the same-sex. Gay marriage in that form does exist, same-sex marriage, or marriage equality, does not.

  • Laurel Martinez

    yet using acronym when you mean initialism does not irk you?

    marriage is marriage. that’s why it should bother you.

  • Annij

    The intent of grammar is to make communication clear, and so I disagree with her belief that using the term “gay marriage” is a term which limits the sexual identities of those involved. Simply put, the marriage itself is gay, not necessarily the people involved. For instance, I have an interracial marriage, my colleague has a gay marriage. Now with that said, the term “marriage equality” is clear and accurate–and all encompassing. Another reason for terminology simplicity is that it distinguishes those who are married from those who are not. Marriage as an institution carries all sorts of legal rights and responsibilities. All marriages therefore, should have the same legal rights and responsibilities whether we’re talkin’ 2012 and the fight for marriage equality for non-heterosexual couples, or 1932 where white women were censured, and discriminated against (subjected to a general attitude of douchbaggery) because they married Japanese, or Chinese Canadian men. Marriage needs to equal in the eyes of the law for interracial couples, inter-class, or single gender couples. Marriage is marriage.

  • Calvin

    I thought that “gay” meant happy. When did that happen? Doesn’t “homophobia” mean that you are afraid of yourself? It was my understanding that people who call themselves “progressives” used to be called “socialists”. “Pro-choice” actually means “pro-abortion” and “pro-life” means preserving innocent life. By the way, there is no such thing as “gay marriage”. There is marriage and shacking up. Marriage is still defined by most of the world as between a man and a woman (women). So try changing peoples minds rather than change laws and forcing people to obey them.

  • Annij

    Part 2 — Another reason for using the term “marriage equality” rather than using qualifiers, modifiers or any other codifier to describe the “type” of equality one wants, is that it is a simple and direct phrase/term: We want to be legally equal to you. That’s it, and nothing more. :)

  • David Nichols

    the alternative term to gay marriage would be same-sex marriage.

  • Jerry Spiegelman

    Without agreeing or disagreeing with this “analysis”, marriage equality is a much better term

  • hmmm

    I’m curious, does the term ‘marriage equality’ include polygamy?

  • Les Boulder

    Typically sophomoric.