The Name Game

I recently spoke to my colleagues about some of the research, writing and thinking I’ve been doing on the issue of marriage equality. Inevitably, some portion of the discussion turns to the civil union and whether it’s an adequate substitute for marriage.* In incisive academic fashion, someone suggested that the state has limited power here, because same-sex couples can seize their own naming rights, calling their unions “marriage” — whatever the state says.


Of course we can, and it’s only folks like the congenitally nasty and ethically challenged Maggie Gallagher who’d respond by saying this:  “If the 15 words “Marriage in the United States is exclusively a union of one man and one woman” are placed in our Constitution, we can point with confidence to those who claim civil unions are marriages and say with confidence, “Not in the United States.”

Well, thanks for that. But she’s not entirely wrong, because we can call the unions what we want — and this is indeed powerful — but it won’t bring the smothering cavalcade of benefits (and responsibilities) that goes only to the officially “married.” Moreover, the state’s power to define relationships has a social, as well as a legal, component. So at the very least the government’s decision to withhold approval of same-sex marriages would weaken and retard our ability to make our naming decisions stick. David Cruz made this  point about the power of the word “marriage” effectively several years ago in his article, “‘Just Don’t Call It a Marriage:’ The First Amendment and Marriage as an Expressive Resource.” (He blogs about marriage  equality, with recent focus on Prop 8.)

In response to this point about the power of naming, I offered that I had recently taken to using the words “husband” or “spouse” instead of “partner” to describe my own relationship. Partly this is to use terms that our daughters hear all the time, and partly it’s because I want to own the equality that I argue for.

So imagine, if you will, my surprise when a female colleague and friend said that she had moved in the opposite direction, using the term “partner” to describe her husband. It then occurred to me that I knew several opposite-sex married couples who used the term partner. Why? To  her, the terms “husband” and “wife” came freighted with all sorts of unpleasant historical associations and meanings; the term “animal husbandry” even came up but wasn’t pursued. The inquiry might be worth making, especially as my dictionary offers these definitions of “husbandry”: “the cultivation or production of plants and animals” and “the scientific control and management of a branch of farming and esp. of domestic animals.” I guess my friend doesn’t want to “control or manage” her spouse in these ways, although, to hear certain conservative commentators talk about the issue, marriage is mostly about this need to control men.

So here’s where we are today: Same-sex couples (OK, some of us) are owning “marriage”  and “husband” and “wife.” In so doing, we are simultaneously mainstreaming ourselves and redefining “husband” and “wife” to the extent that these have been considered terms of rigid relation. To call ourselves “partners” starts to sound like complicity in our second-class citizenship.

Meanwhile, some progressive opposite-sex couples choose “partner” because of its strong association to the idea of equality.

Where will this name game end? It won’t, of course; only extinct cultures produce “dead languages.” But however mutable, names have power.

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