The question of same-sex marriage is complex in various ways: legally, morally, sociologically, and psychologically. It is not the purpose here, however, to analyze the phenomenon of same-sex unions under any of those aspects. The more modest purpose of this essay is simply to offer some reflections on the two terms of “marriage” and “equality” in reference to same-sex unions. Taking a closer look at these terms can hopefully bring some clarity to the controversy surrounding same-sex unions.
It is relatively recently that the issue of same-sex marriage became one of the major battlefields in the cultural wars. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that denying a marriage license to same-sex partners violated the Hawaiian Constitution. Since then, the political and legal battle over same-sex marriage has been waged throughout the U.S. Same-sex partners and their supporters feel very strongly that same-sex unions should be recognized as a marriage. Hence the movement to secure legislation requiring civil authorities to issue marriage licenses and to accord the same legal status to same-sex unions as that enjoyed by traditional marriages. This movement has achieved a significant measure of success. At the same time, it has been strongly opposed by many.
Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex unions in 2004. Since then, other states have redefined their marriage laws, both for and against same-sex marriage. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Thirty-one states explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage. In the latter, there have been various attempts at accommodation (domestic partnerships, civil unions). In some states, there have been legal procedures to overturn bans on same-sex marriage. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether or not the U.S. constitution allows individual states to ban same-sex marriage. Currently, a number of lawyers are urging the Supreme Court to choose their case as the most appropriate one in which to establish a nationwide right to same-sex marriage.
Public opinion polls indicate support for same-sex marriage has increased over the past decade, achieving a majority in 2010. Since then, the polls consistently indicate a level of support above 50 percent. Worth recalling here is the fact that it is characteristic of a democracy that majority rule is understood as being effective, not only in politics, but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is often enough wrong.
Like many things, marriage is too large a reality to submit to any single, adequate definition. We distinguish legal marriage from common law marriage. There are polygamous marriages. There are sacramental marriages, as distinguished from civil marriages.
In his book, A World Waiting to Be Born, M. Scott Peck offers a definition of marriage: “an organization of two people who have made a commitment to attempt to maintain that organization.” Recently, Presbyterians revised their definition of marriage, changing it from “a union of man and woman” to “a union of two persons.” According to those definitions, same-sex unions would qualify as marriages.
Of the dictionary definitions listed in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, two of them (“the mutual relation of husband and wife”; and “the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family”) would not allow qualifying homosexual unions as marriages. There is also a third meaning listed: “an intimate or close union.” According to this definition, homosexual unions would qualify as marriages
The difficulty of formulating an adequate and acceptable definition of marriage was reflected at the highest levels of government. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed, with a veto-proof majority, what became known as the Defense of Marriage Act. It was signed by then President Clinton. Section 3 of the act offered a definition of marriage: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” In 2013, Section 3 of the act, containing that definition, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
It seems worth noting that what words mean is tied to who says them, and under what circumstances. The assumption that a word contains meaning, like a cup holds coffee, and that everyone uses words as I would, is arguably one of the most widely held misconceptions. Words simply do not stand still. Over time, they can take on different meanings. Words are arbitrary signs, and understanding requires interpretation. Thus we want to avoid being like Humpty Dumpty, who said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Like all written and oral terms, “marriage” is a sign of a concept, the external manifestation of a thought. It is a conventional or arbitrary sign. Such terms may be equivocal. They may assume entirely different and unrelated meanings. They can do this precisely because they are arbitrary signs in which several entirely different and unrelated meanings can be cumulated. “Marriage” is not an equivocal term.
Nor is the term “marriage” univocal, i.e., a term which signifies a concept that is simply one; a term that is predicated of many individuals in exactly the same way; one that has only one meaning. Terms of this kind are usually scientific or technical.
“Marriage” belongs to a very large category of terms that are analogous, i.e., that are predicated of individuals under it, not exactly in the same way, but according to different proportions. Thus, an analogous term assumes two or more related meanings. It applies to things that are simply different, but in some way related. Analogy indicates primarily difference, and secondarily, some conformity despite the differences.
This is the case with the term “marriage.” Homosexual and heterosexual unions may have much in common, e.g., love, dedication, permanence. These unions are, however, simply different. They have different outcomes from substantially different actions. As such, they deserve different names. If one insists the same name must be applied to both, it must be recognized that this is done through analogy.
Questions of terminology are important because they are intimately connected to questions of truth. Using the same term “marriage” to indicate things that, although related, are simply different, is confusing, and a source of controversy. Controversy over the use of the term “marriage,” however, is not simply a quarrel about the use of the term. It is a reflection of the much deeper controversy over the value/disvalue, morality/immorality of same-sex unions. It is ultimately a quarrel over cultural values.
To frame the question here in terms of equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals is misleading. Homosexuals have the same human dignity as everyone else. Difference in sexual orientation or activity does not equate inequality as persons. There is, however, an inequality between homosexuals and heterosexuals that is to be recognized. It might help to note, that while all human beings are equal in regard to certain basic attributes and rights, all are not equal in many other ways, e.g., strength, intelligence, looks. The difference between homosexual and heterosexual orientation and activity is a real difference. Consequently, the difference between homosexual and heterosexual unions is a real difference. One is not the other in reality. To ignore these differences is to ignore reality.