The way we describe our community may ultimately have more impact than the facts we relate. In fact, the way the gay and lesbian community describes itself in terminology and symbols is the way the community thinks about itself and, eventually, becomes the way others perceive us. If we use the language of respect and support, the world is more likely to see us in that light.
One of the first chores for the gay liberation movement during the 70s was, firstly, to convince reporters just to hear our stories. Secondly, we wanted them to adopt the terms we prefer to describe ourselves.
At that time, most journalists described our community with terminology that was usually either clinical (i.e., “homosexual”), or derogatory (i.e., “self-avowed”). The stories often characterized us as veritable criminals whereas, in reality, being homosexual was not a crime anywhere in the United States.1
When Partners Task Force began publishing in 1986, we recognized our responsibility to use terminology that describes same-sex couples in a way that was truthful, accurate, and easily understood.
At that time, there was little information published about same-sex couples. Both the gay and wide-world presses assumed that our community was comprised primarily of singles. Couples were the most invisible of an already hidden population.
Yet as early as 1989, a national survey of randomly selected participants indicated that more than 60 percent of those in the gay and lesbian community were in a relationship.2 Nonetheless, the community was slow to acknowledge that lovers often become couples, and couples become families.
Not surprisingly, there was very little agreement about language that respectfully describes those couples. To discover what couples called each other, and better understand how they had constructed their families, we conducted our own national survey of lesbian and gay couples in 1990.
[See: Partners National Survey of Lesbian & Gay Couples: Summary of Results]
Responses from 1,266 couples revealed that most called each other “partner,” “life partner,” “lover,” or “spouse.” Lesser numbers called themselves “roommate/friend,” “mate/life mate,” and “boyfriend/girlfriend,” among other terms.
Some couples called each other “husband” or “wife.” We learned from interviews that, those who called each other “husband” or “wife,” were occasionally accused of aping “straight” culture.
Our national survey also exposed the inordinate amount of discrimination couples faced — as a couple, not due to being gay or lesbian — in insurance, taxes, housing, memberships, custody, immigration, etc. A marriage license would address ninety-five percent of this discrimination. That’s why Partners decided to actively campaign for legal marriage.
In America, individual, same-sex couples took the lead fighting for legal marriage. The first suit was in 1971. No major gay organization took up the struggle until well into the Hawaii suit - around 1994.
[See: Legal Marriage Court Cases: A Timeline]
By the year 2000, every major gay and lesbian organization had discussed and many joined the nationwide efforts. Along with these efforts came the realization that not only were we demanding equality, we needed to define the language which describes the very root of our demands.
Just Plain “Marriage”
The term “marriage” has two major definitions:
Because the iconographic trapping of church ceremonies first comes to mind when discussing marriage, it is important to spell out the differences of legality and intent between the two.
- A legal contract licensed by the state.
- A religious or social ceremony mounted by community, friends, or clergy.
For clarity, it is useful to say “legal marriage” and “ceremonial marriage,” to tell them apart.
When the reference is to marrying same-sex partners, it is useful to say “marriage,” or “marriage for same-sex couples.”
Generally, both the gay and mainstream press has been less diligent. While there has been a lot of attention paid to legal marriage, the gay press has sometimes used the term “queer marriage,” which is neither accurate nor positive. It is merely shocking and, in our opinion, denigrating to the marriage partners.
There should be a lot of attention paid to the terminology used for legal marriage because there is a lot at stake. Not only does the language describe the civil right, it defines what we think of that civil right. “Queer marriage” does not appear to take marriage seriously. It also classifies it as a different, rather than equal, institution.
The term “gay marriage” put to rest. Opposite-sex couples do not describe their relationships as “straight marriage.” Using the term “gay marriage” gives the impression that we want something different or special, whereas the only demand is for equal treatment.
Another reason to eschew the term “gay marriage” is that the denial of legal marriage is not due to sexual orientation. In fact, there are plenty of married gay men and lesbians — they happen to be married to opposite-sex partners. These gay men and lesbians were able to marry because their partners had different anatomy. No marriage license requires revealing an applicant’s orientation.
“Same-gender marriage” is also misleading. The discrimination facing same-sex couples is based on sex, not gender. The terms are not interchangeable.
“Gender” is socially constructed. It denotes the assumed qualities of maleness and femaleness. “Sex” identifies the biological makeup that distinguishes between the male and the female. To put it another way: gender is a role, sex is the plumbing.
The law currently denies marriage to two women or two men because of the physical bodies they inhabit, not because of the sex role(s) they play, whether “feminine,” “masculine,” “androgynous,” or otherwise. Likewise, a man who assumes a female gender by dressing and acting “like a woman” can still marry a woman.
Some may have favored the term “same-gender” under the assumption that “gender” is more palatable than “sex.” However, an unpublished Seattle survey of voters conducted by the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington, in 1997, tested the use of “gender” and “sex” to learn which term resulted in more support of marriage for gay men and lesbians. “Gender” won only three percentage points over “sex” — not enough to prefer a term that confuses the issue.
Because the word “sex” can refer to intimate behavior, some prefer to avoid the term “same-sex” for fear of misinterpretation. However, the sex status — as two males or two females — is the basis of the marriage discrimination. Therefore, the term “same-sex” is the most relevant and informative.
Many people support the idea of marriage. Those who don’t, seem less concerned with the language. They either don’t understand the issue as one of equality, don’t think marriage is a good idea for anyone, or have animosity toward or hate gay men and lesbians.
It is possible to garner support for legal marriage with the language of rational discourse, rather than with the euphemistic use of “gender.” We believe that the term “queer marriage” is alienating and an entirely unpersuasive alternative.
The term “same-sex marriage” makes clear what’s at stake. It’s not about having sex, it’s about marrying someone of the same sex. Stealthy language will never succeed in slipping this issue through a legislature, voters, or the courts. Heartfelt, well-reasoned appeals stand a far greater chance of success.
Part of the problem with naming marriage stems from the fact that same-sex couples have been denied this right for so long that they never expected to legally marry and therefore had no need to name or describe the public or private, formal or informal, rituals they have long used to confirm their commitment to each other.
A Wedding is a Wedding is a Wedding
While not providing any legal protection or responsibilities, non-legal ceremonies can have a powerful, positive effect upon the couple and those who attend. Our national survey determined that 31 percent of the women and 20 percent of the men had held a ceremony or some other ritual. Fifty-seven percent of the women and 36 percent of the men wore rings or some other symbol of their commitment.
Couples we interviewed sometimes were required by their church or temple to use certain terms for their rituals; these included “blessing,” “commitment ceremony,” or “union.” These religious organizations, who reserved “wedding” and “marriage” for opposite-sex couples, gravely misunderstood the use of completely appropriate terminology to describe our passion and fealty.
Because ceremonies for same-sex and opposite-sex weddings are often identical in purpose, tone and even text (except for signing the state marriage license at the end of the ceremony), we think they should be called the same. A license does not make or break a marriage ceremony — it only affects the legal outcome.
During the late 90s, large segments of the gay and lesbian community have fondly embraced the very same words that oppressors have traditionally used to describe us: “queer” and “faggot.” This can term can be heard in the street, and written in many gay publications.
This sort of in-community put down is self-deprecating and hurtful. It makes no sense to use this kind of language in our community publications, or in our lives.
[See: Why Partners Task Force Does Not Use “Queer” to Define Our Community]
It took decades for the New York Times to adopt the word “gay,” rather than “homosexual.” The term “gay” transformed perceptions of the gay and lesbian community — including our own — because it was positive, non-clinical, and self-selected.
These days, the names of many gay groups include the word “queer.” Because the term is used so widely, the Times, or other more hostile publications, could easily begin to adopt it.
Indeed, hateful politicians publicly bandy the term already. The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, who chairs the state governor’s re-election campaign, stated: “I used the word ‘queer’ and I’ll use it again. I’m not going to call them gay. I don’t approve of their lifestyle one bit.”3
There is no escaping the fact that it is a term of abuse. No other subculture insists on formally and seriously addressing itself by terms that traditionally are weapons of hate, taunts, and insults. No other group prefers that others describe it by such oppressive language.
Use of these terms gives the impression that the gay and lesbian community sees itself as perpetual victims. It also confuses and puts off those who would otherwise be our supporters. It can make it more difficult to work on some political issues because inappropriate terminology can cloud understanding of the real issues at stake.
Gay men and lesbians are not queer. We have a different orientation than the majority, and it is certainly not worthless or fake. We are part of the fabric of every culture and society, and have been present during every age of history. We have added significantly to the world’s culture and sciences; indeed, many gay men and lesbians have favorably changed the course of human history.
Further, the use of “queer” by gay men and lesbians appears to be romanticized, and perpetuates the perception of the gay and lesbian community as “sexual outlaws.” Holding oneself apart from the mainstream creates a condition of separateness and devalues the transformative potential of inclusion. Accentuating our difference could deter us from seeking and gaining full equality.
Desperately Seeking Symbols
Graphic symbols, the visual shorthand used on logos, bumper stickers, buttons and flyers, also provide us with a community identity. One of the healthiest symbols is the rainbow flag, a colorful reminder of the diversity and scope of the gay and lesbian community.
Through the 70-80s, the pink triangle was widely adopted by gay organizations, often featured on logos and political buttons. The Nazis used this symbol on clothing patches to mark those men they accused of being homosexual. Many of these gay men were sent to jail, work camps, and some to extermination camps.
The pink triangle is a horrible and important reminder of the extent to which any right wing, extremist political party is capable. It may not be, however, a positive image of gay liberation. By contrast, consider that no black liberation group would use the symbol of the burning cross.
Fortunately, the 90-05s saw the spread of an abundance of far more positive and colorful logos and symbols.
Defining Our Community and Ourselves
During the 90s, there has been a growing, healthy awareness of same-sex couples’ issues. In addition to more news coverage, and a profusion of books, many hundreds of couples made their appearance on their personal Web sites. Most of these books and Web site have presented a very positive self-image of respect and dignity.
It is important to define ourselves as part of the worldwide culture, part of the American family, and deserving of equal treatment. It is important to plan for a future where all citizens are treated equally, have the same opportunities, and are not penalized for being gay or lesbian.
When such a future arrives, will anyone still insist on being called “queer?” Will anyone blink an eye when two men call each other “husband,” or two women call each other “wife?”
This concern for precise and positive language does not arise from an all-consuming interest in “political correctness,” but from the knowledge that language has the power to define the dream of equality — and the dream has the power to define the future.
Partners’ Terminology Recommendations
Gay or gay men|
not “gays” (gay is not a noun)
not “avowed” or “admitted” homosexual (connotes negative bias - use “openly gay”)
not “queer,” “fag,” “dyke,” etc. (these insults aren’t worth “reclaiming”)
there is no such thing as a “gay” lifestyle
not “gay women”
not “gay marriage,” “same-gender marriage” or even “same-sex marriage”
Civil or equal rights for gay men and lesbians
not “gay rights” or “special rights”
not “sexual preference”
Any group of people, with or without children, who care for each other and share the common necessities of life.
All families have value.
1 - Hunter, N.D., & Michaelson, S.E., & Stoddard, T.B., 1992. The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men: the Basic ACLU Guide to a Gay Person’s Rights, p.118
2 - San Francisco Examiner, June 6, 1989. Gay in America: an Examiner special report, p.21
3 - Montgomery Advertiser, week of January 19, 1998. News article quoting Mayor Emory Folmar defending having called gay people “queer” during a TV appearance. Reported by Rex Wockner, in his syndicated Quote Unquote #111, Jan 25, 1998.