Expect the media to talk a lot about “same sex marriage” over the coming days. Progressives should talk about “marriage equality.” (More)

Why Words Matter: “Marriage Equality” vs. “Same Sex Marriage”

Conservatives often complain about political correctness, even while they encourage it among their own leaders and spokespersons. Consider the very first sentence in this article at TeaParty.org:

A major plank in the Gay Bill of Special Rights has just been enacted by Federal bureaucratic decree!

The article addresses the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision in Macy v. Holder. Mia Macy is a transgender woman who alleged that she was denied employment because of her transgender status. She sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The EEOC dismissed her case, holding that Title VII did not cover discrimination based on gender identity. Macy appealed and, on May 1st, the EEOC issued reversed their decision. The EEOC ruling reviewed several federal court precedents – including the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins holding that Title VII covers discrimination based on gender stereotypes – and concluded that “intentional discrimination against a transgender individual is, by definition, discrimination ‘based on … sex’ and such discrimination therefore violates Title VII.”

The “bureaucratic decree” is in fact a federal agency applying a federal statute as interpreted by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps the author believes Congress must rewrite statutes every time the courts interpret them. But I want to focus on that other piece of conservative political correctness:

“Special Rights”

Back in March, the Kentucky legislature rejected an anti-bullying bill because Republicans on the House Education Committee said it would give “special rights” to LGBT students:

Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, said he feared that any statute that did not protect a Christian student’s First Amendment rights to disagree with a gay student about whether homosexuality is acceptable could subject the Christian student to punishment for harassment.

Waide said the issue was about equal protection, but that “you can’t achieve equality by making some persons more equal than others.”

So not being bullied is a “special right?” Well of course, if you’re LGBT. What are “special rights?” Simply, any policy that limits white privilege, heterosexual privilege, or male privilege. As law professor Sheila Kennedy wrote last month:

So let me understand this argument: If government respects the civil rights of Christians – and if Human Rights agencies protect those Christians from being picked on because of their beliefs – that’s simply government protecting equal rights.

But if government treats LGBT folks just like it treats everyone else – if it empowers those same Human Rights agencies to protect gay folks from being picked on because of their sexual orientation – that’s “special rights.”

“Marriage Equality”

“Same sex marriage” is frame that ignores-by-omission heterosexuals’ existing fundamental freedom to marry. By focusing the issue on “same sex” couples, the phrase implies LGBTs grasping for something they don’t already have and – by virtue of the just world fallacy – must not deserve. In that frame, allowing LGBTs to marry is granting them a “special right.”

In contrast, “marriage equality” recognizes-by-implication an existing inequality: that marriage is currently, in most states, a privilege reserved for heterosexual couples. To truly be a “fundamental freedom” – as the U.S. Supreme Court described it in Loving v. Virginia – the law of marriage must apply equally for all couples.

And that’s what President Obama said yesterday:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

The president recognized an existing inequality, and declared his support for marriage equality. We should do likewise. This issue not about the “special rights” of “same sex marriage.” This is about the “fundamental freedom” of “marriage equality.”


Happy Thursday!