Sunday, July 16, 2006

Terms of Endearment

Call it precision or call it silly literalism, but I tend to change gay marriage to same-sex marriage when the subject is the legal status of such a union. After all, a law regarding the practice would apply to a couple of straight guys who decided to get hitched for whatever reason, but it wouldn't apply to a marriage between a gay guy and a lesbian. Still, it's gay people who are affected by bans on same-sex marriage, and so I don't lose sleep over gay marriage as a headline shortcut or a second-reference change-up.

At the Washington Times, where I worked for eight years, gay is tolerated for space reasons but homosexual is strongly preferred. Even more strangely, the Times still puts quotation marks around the word marriage whenever it involves same-sex couples. (That practice made sense, in a way, when it referred to commitment ceremonies that carried no legal standing. It's nonsensical, however, when the very issue is whether same-sex couples are granted legal standing. You can ban same-sex marriage, but how in the world do you ban same-sex "marriage"?)

I once derided the phrase "gays and lesbians" as being akin to "people and women," and indeed I still prefer to see it recast as "gay men and lesbians," but I don't see any point in changing a phrase such as "gay and lesbian couples." While gay certainly can refer to women (as it does in "gay marriage," and as, yep, Time magazine and Ellen DeGeneres made clear), "gay couples" risks being read as "gay male couples." Better to commit a tiny redundancy than to sacrifice clarity.


Airhen said...

Whenever I asked this very question at the Times, the answer was that it's not marriage (as defined by those in charge at the Times, of course), even if what we are talking about is the legal definition of marriage. If you try to see the reasoning, you will get dizzy. A=B because B=A.

This page 1 headline seemed particularly awkward (July 7):
"Gays cannot 'marry' in N.Y.;
Court defers to Legislature"
(The court may be saying they can't marry, but the court can't say they can't "marry.")

In text, you can get around it with something like "legal recognition of same-sex unions" as long as you don't need to distinguish between marriage and domestic unions. It's clunky, but at least it's not insulting.

MuPu said...

same-sex marriage
vs. same-sex "marriage"
vs. "same-sex marriage"

With quotation marks, there's a subtle scent of mockery (but it's certainly less obvious than using the occasionally seen so-called). And without the marks, there's a subtle scent of endorsement. Either form is tolerable in opinion pieces, but neither seems right in straight (so to speak) news reporting.

It's the use of the term marriage, with or without quotation marks, that seems to be the problem here.

I think airhen's same-sex unions is a little more neutral. Unions imparts no judgment, for one thing. It's also a somewhat broader term that may be used to encompass the various rituals and legal arrangements that the separate states may use now or in the future.

Bill said...

When you're talking about whether states will recognize actual marriage between members of the same sex, you're talking about same-sex marriage. Non-marriage "unions" are another thing altogether.

MuPu said...

Bill, thanks for pointing out the distinction. I wonder, though, if the differences between the two are beginning to blur with all the overlap. Stand by for lots of retronyms. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am in a straight marriage.)

Anonymous said...

i find interest in the distinctions you've laid for us. it kept me wondering that maybe that's why there are distinctions in sex orientation and in date preferences in online datign sites such as webdate_dot_com.

Charles said...

I always use "same-sex marriage" rather than "gay marriage" precisely because I have seen ostensible adults seriously make the argument that gays can already get married, special rights, blah blah blah, froth froth.

I suspect the Washington Times, being affiliated with a religious organization, has an editorial policy that emphasizes that, regardless of what the law says, a number of readers will never consider such couples truly married.

Bill said...

If anything, you'd think that a publication that disdains same-sex marriage would be trumpeting the very real nature of the union that some are seeking to allow. It should be real, Real, REAL marriage, not "marriage" in quotes.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about the terms "same-sex unions" and am wondering whether this term could not just refer to labor organizations consisting of construction workers, policemen, Indian chiefs, and other such groups.

H. Philip Aster said...

Bill, I agree with your thoughts on this issue, particularly the unnecessary (and rather insidious, I might add) practice of adding quotation marks to "marriage" in this context.

Most articles discussing the subject expressly or implicitly recognize the largely theoretical nature of same-sex marriage (theoretical because same-sex marriage is allowed by law in only one state), and this sentiment will be conveyed to and likely understood by even the least perceptive reader.

As such, adding quotation marks to "marriage" really adds nothing to the reader's understanding in most cases, but it may tend to suggest that the author of the piece (or the publication) views the notion of same-sex marriage as invalid, whether legally sanctioned or not.

I agree with mupu that including the quotation marks intimates a "subtle scent of mockery," but I fail to see how excluding the offending punctuation suggests endorsement of same-sex marriage.

MuPu said...

e.k. hornbeck: I agree with mupu that including the quotation marks intimates a "subtle scent of mockery," but I fail to see how excluding the offending punctuation suggests endorsement of same-sex marriage.

I took a second look at my post, and Mr. Hornbeck's comment about it is well-taken. I think that any suggestion of endorsement in the lack of quotes would only be taken by a small minority that might have very strong views against the concept.

The use of quotes is certainly a much stronger polarizer than the lack of quotes. Bill already shot down the idea of using same-sex unions as an acceptable synonym, so I'm open to other suggestions.

It seems that any of the terms we've discussed can be taken the wrong way by someone. Perhaps it's less a matter of word choice and more a matter of setting an overall tone. This can be a difficult balancing act if a publication has a diverse readership.

Maybe someone can give us a link to an article that got the "overall tone" right.

Or maybe there isn't a treatment of this subject that we can all agree on! But I can't think of a topic that would pose that kind of challenge to professional news reporters, not even war and abortion.

Let's see if we can work this one out.

Sarah said...

How about "marriage equality"?

"Gay marriage" does tend to be taken as gay male marriage, and let's not forget that many people in same-sex relationships are in fact bisexual, or for that matter transgendered folks who don't fit easily into male-female classification.

"Unions" and "marriages" can't be interchanged; legally, the institution of marriage confers over 3,000 distinct rights to its participants; domestic unions vary, but most offer less than 1,000. It's a back-of-the-bus compromise option that can't be equated with the real deal.

I don't have any real objections to the use of "same-sex marriage" (no quotes around marriage, please!) but I think that "equal marriage" or "marriage equality" present a more realistic view of the situation.