Not long after marriage because the cause du jour of gay activists, the term “marriage equality” came to define their movement. So prominent has this term become that a google search (with the expression in quotation marks) yields over 2 million hits. No fewer than 2,884 news articles on yesterday’s California Supreme Court decision used the expression.
While I realize those who use the term to mean granting same-sex couples the same benefits traditional marriage has long afforded to heterosexual couples, there has long been something about the expression which has bothered me. Indeed, I’m troubled that all gay organizations (including, alas Log Cabin) as well as numerous gay activists and individuals have adopted “equality” as the defining word of the gay political movement (more on that in a subsequent post).
The noun “equality” (as opposed to the adjective “equal” in the expressions “equal opportunity” or “equal right”) has socialist overtones, while liberty is more fitting with the American tradition. But, if the goal here were liberty, it would have already been reached. For gay people are free to marry, it’s just that only two states recognize their unions as such (and grant them the privileges of the institution).
Perhaps, what bothers me the most about the term “marriage equality” is its abstraction. The California Supreme Court did little to clarify this, indeed, seemed to further muddy the waters when it defined marriage as “the substantive right of two adults who share a loving relationship to join together to establish an officially recognized family of their own.”
Does that mean that all unions of two adults are equal? Is a monogamous union equal to a nonmonogamous one?
It’s not just the ambiguity of the term that bothers me, it’s that it serves to erase the difference between the sexes. Men and women are different. Men relate to each other differently than women relate to each other and differently than they relate to women in intimate relationships. To adopt the term “marriage equality” suggests that men and women are the same and that a male-female relationship is identical to a male-male relationship or a female-female one.
To be sure, “marriage equality” is easier to say than other expressions which might more accurately describe the movement. But, when equality becomes the operative noun and marriage almost an adjective in this expression, it seems to be reducing the traditional notion of marriage as the monogamous union of a man and a woman to any relationship between two adults. And shouldn’t be trying to elevate only certain same-sex relationships, those between individuals who have accepted the responsibilities long defined by traditional marriage, to that hallowed ground?
Perhaps, I would be less troubled by the term if more advocates of gay marriage made an effort to define that this “equality” involves that elevation of gay unions rather than a reduction of the institution. To do that, they’re going to need to define marriage as something more than the union of two adults in a loving relationship.