Geof Stone: "Same-Sex Marriage and the Meaning of Words"

Same-Sex Marriage and the Meaning of Words
Geoffrey R. Stone
The Huffington Post
November 5, 2009

In reading through the comments on my recent post about the electoral result in Maine (The Lessons of Maine), I could not help but notice that many defenders of the ban on same-sex marriage argue that marriage has always been defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, that there's no reason to change that traditional definition, and that gays and lesbians should be satisfied with having all the rights married people have, without insisting on re-writing the dictionary.

I have several thoughts about this. First, of course, gays and lesbians do not have "all the rights married people have." Only eleven states currently recognize civil unions (or same-sex marriages). The other thirty-nine do not in any way grant gay and lesbians "all the rights married people have." Moreover, because of the federal Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), even those states that do recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions cannot grant gays and lesbians "all the rights married people have," because many of the most important of those rights are determined by the federal government, which refuses to recognize the legality of either same-sex marriage or civil union, even when they have been legally recognized by a state. Thus, the assumption that any gays and lesbians in the United States have "all the rights married people have" is unfounded.

But that is not a fair response to the objection. The objection basically argues that gays and lesbians should work to get "all the rights married people have," but in doing so they should not ask for the word "marriage" to be extended to their relationships. They should be content, in other words, to achieve the substantive content of marriage, without also asking for the name. What, after all, is in a name?

 

Faculty: 
Geoffrey R. Stone