Words matter

This morning on KQED, a “Perspectives” piece by Bob Engel, a marriage and family therapy intern in Sebastopol CA, arguing that in matters of same-sex committed relationships, words matter; partner is separate from, and not equal to, husband/wife.

The piece is short enough that I’ll quote it here in full, pointing especially to the analogy between marriage and adoption:

The Weight of a Word

Each time a referendum or lawsuit brings gay marriage to the news cycle, some feel hope while others are distressed; some see a civil rights issue and others a social and religious threat. In some states — and California is one of them — the issue is simply what we call it. That’s because the California Supreme Court, even after passage of Proposition 8, affirmed that all the rights the state confers on marriages are also conferred on gays and lesbians in domestic partnerships.

Does a word matter? It matters a great deal. Those who argue for “civil union” or “domestic partnership” instead of “marriage” miss that point. They apparently believe that naming vows of everlasting love “marriage” regardless of gender somehow demeans the traditional meaning of marriage.

To test the idea that a word matters, let’s apply similar standards to other important members of our families: children. When we adopt a child, we unquestioningly call this new member of our family “my son,” “my daughter.” But what if custom and law decreed some other name? My “adoptee,” “my civil daughter”? What if instead of the Defense of Marriage Act, we had a Defense of Biological Birth Act rooted in the idea that tradition and science had only one logical definition of son and daughter? Imagine how you would feel if the state told you that calling your adopted child “son” or “daughter” demeaned the special relationship that only a biological parent can have with a child.

So when our lesbian neighbors or our gay cousin and his boyfriend decide to make the same commitment to one another that heterosexual couples have made for centuries, there is no proper name for that commitment other than “marriage.” What we call things matters. And when someone introduces me to the love of their life, it matters whether they say, “This is my partner” or whether they are granted the right to say, “We are married,” “This is my husband,” “This is my wife.”

When naming these things, there is no way that separate can be equal.

I’ll just remind you of a posting I made in 2009 about Steve Kleinedler after the death of his husband, Peter Dubuque (they were married in Massachusetts). A quotation from Steve:

Just how far marriage equality has become a regular component of society here [in Massachusetts] has been made clear to me while interacting with people I didn’t know. In decades past, authority figures were often adversarial to the queer community. Now, in 2009, the EMTs, police officers, and detectives on the accident scene were extremely professional, respectful, and courteous.

Referring to Peter as my husband doesn’t raise eyebrows or result in scorn or sarcasm, whereas referring to him as my partner ten or fifteen years ago carried the risk of bad service, indifference, or outright hostility.

Words matter.


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