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Traditionalists must revise gay marriage lexicon

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 19, 2004

The defeat of the federal marriage amendment -- which failed to win a simple majority in the Senate much less the required two-thirds -- was predictable, but nevertheless a significant setback in the ongoing efforts to keep rogue judges from imitating Massachusetts' example. Marital traditionalists looking for how to proceed from here might be wise to start by challenging language that frames the debate in hostile, inaccurate terms.

Headlines about the FMA both in the run-up to the Senate vote and the aftermath of its rejection routinely described it as an effort to "ban gay marriage." Others suggested the amendment would "ban gay unions. Such wording makes it sound like an otherwise permissible activity was being prohibited, lending plausibility to those pundits who would have us believe the FMA was concocted as Karl Rove rubbed his hands together and chanted, "Arise theocracy, arise!"

The problem with describing what opponents of same-sex marriage would like to do in these terms is that this framing of the issue -- while seemingly neutral and often accepted uncritically by social conservatives -- is itself prejudicial. Those who would believe same-sex marriage is not only a non-oxymoronic logical possibility but also a constitutional necessity argue that people are presently being excluded from marriage and what they are seeking amounts to opening marriage up to these excluded people.

This proposition, for which sound arguments can be made, is certainly one way of looking at it. But it happens to not be the way those of us who favor traditional marriage look at it. Abandoning the idea of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is not merely opening marriage up to a new group of people; it amounts to fundamentally changing the definition of marriage.

Similarly, what we seek is not so much to "ban" anything as to preserve the existing, traditional definition of marriage. This is a debate between those who want to change what marriage means and those who believe there is value in keeping it the way it is.

At first this may sound like a trivial word game, but the distinction is more than semantic. By accepting the prevailing media characterization of the opposition to gay marriage -- or rather, the support for the preservation of traditional marriage -- we allow our friends and colleagues on the other side of the debate to steal a couple bases.

First, this "ban" on gay marriage sounds like something new, something novel, rather than merely the preservation of the existing state of affairs. Second, it allows the issue to be easily conflated with coercive measures like sodomy laws that don't necessarily have anything to do with marriage. Columnist James Lileks remarked on his blog that "banning gay unions" makes it sound "(a)s if the government was going to find gay couples, crowbar them apart and make them live alone in dismal one-room apartments."

Language is important in politics. The words that are used define a debate, spell out one's message and communicate that message to the electorate at large. The side that most effectively does the defining is often the one that prevails in the public square.

Neither side of the abortion debate accepts the other's terminology. Imagine if abortion opponents allowed themselves to be described as anti-abortion rights or even anti-choice rather than pro-life. Supporters of legal abortion have carefully cultivated the pro-choice label over the years and respond angrily when called "pro-abortion." They assiduously avoid even the use of the word abortion and fiercely contest pro-life efforts to frame debates -- consider the ubiquitous media reference to "a procedure described by opponents as partial-birth abortion."

Marital traditionalists -- a better term than gay-marriage opponents, by the way -- do not need to be as evasive. We merely need to be clearer and more positive about our own message. Instead of talking about banning same-sex marriage, we should talk about defending, affirming and preserving traditional marriage.

This is primarily a debate over marriage and whether it has any connection to the ideal of children having mothers and fathers. It is not, as our opponents (and far too many of our allies) would have it, mainly a debate about homosexuality.

As Richard Weaver notably wrote, ideas have consequences. So too do words. Supporters of traditional matrimony can stand up for the idea that marriage is about husbands and wives and fathers and mothers rather than the "Party A" and "Party B" that adorn Massachusetts licenses. Or they can stand for wielding the crowbars implied by the headlines. Marital traditionalists must send their own message.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • A possible alternative to the federal marriage amendment by W. James Antle III (July 12, 2004)
    Conservatives often respond to a decision by an activist judiciary by calling for a constitutional amendment. W. James Antle III says there might be an easier way to reign one of the branches of government
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