In the Gay Marriage Debate, Words Still Matter

ByCarolyn Bolton

The tug-of-war between gay-rights groups wanting to blow long-held assumptions regarding marriage out of the water, and those more traditional folks who’d like to see those assumptions maintained raises the question, “What is marriage, anyway?”

For many, marriage has come to mean financial stability — a way of paying the mortgage, orthodontia bills, and keeping up appearances — rather than a deep-seated spiritual bond between a husband and wife.

Americans are clearly divided on the definition of word as evidenced last month by the 5-4 Supreme Court decision to return the fate of California’s Proposition 8 to lower justices — one of whom struck down the 2008 ballot initiative, which amended the California state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, in 2010. Rhode Island recently became the last of the New England states to legalize same-sex marriage, while voters in North Carolina last year approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

State officials, including Gov. John Kitzhaber (D-Ore.) as reported by, have recently come out in support of legalizing gay marriage in their respective states, reported Reuters in an article titled "Gay marriage advocates eye Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey."

A poll conducted in April by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that 53% of Americans favor gay marriage and 42% oppose it, while 5% of Americans are still on the fence regarding the issue. A similar poll conducted 10 years ago shows Americans’ attitudes on the topic have shifted drastically, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, with 51% of those polled opposing gay marriage, 32% in favor of it, and 17% undecided.

A possible explanation for the shift in public opinion could be peoples’ changing view of marriage itself. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer Americans are walking down the aisle, with 4.2 million Americans newly married in 2011 compared to 4.5 million in 2008. Little more than half of adults were married in 2011 compared with 72% of adults in 1960.

Marriage isn’t the shiny, esteemed union it once was.

A former boss once used the word “married” to describe two separate brochures that needed to be joined together. Designers on HGTV have thrown the word around when meshing cabinetry with countertops. A renowned Brooklyn wedding photographer labeled a shoot she did simply as “Commitment.” A friend, now in his early-to-mid thirties, said he has delayed marrying because the practice has become more of a “merger” than a relationship between husband and wife. A former co-worker once described his wife’s view of their marriage as a mere “business partnership.” Other friends have delayed marrying because they can’t immediately finance a lavish wedding celebration.

If the meaning being assigned to marriage is vague, floating, nebulous nouns like "commitment," "merger," and "contract" – a mere “ball and chain” – then certainly no one would object if a man “married” a man and a woman a woman. The great presumption there, however, is the idea that marriage can be shaped any way the wind blows rather than exist as something fixed, transcending semantic shifts.

On grounds of personal liberty, many conservative libertarians would not take issue with a gay couples’ right to their partner’s bedside, the right to an inheritance, and even the right to enter into a legally binding contract with each other.

The issue, rather, is in misascribing marriage to mean anything other than a union between a husband and a wife.

Theologian Martin Luther said this of his own experience with marriage: “There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.”

If only more people felt as he did.