The Weight of a Word

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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.


With a Perspective, I'm Bob Engel.

Bob Engel is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in Sebastopol.