Why America Won’t Give You Gay Marriage: You’re Saying It Wrong

Did you know that the reason you don’t have same-sex marriage legalized in this land is because you keep referring to your goal as “rights,” rather than “loving commitments,” or some equally glossy phrase? Your attempt to brainwash Americans into getting behind your special rights is all about messaging, and you’re doing it wrong!

So claim Lanae Erickson and Jon Cowan of the progressive think tank Third Way:

“What do we want? EQUAL RIGHTS! When do we want them? NOW!” Catchy — but it doesn’t sound much like a wedding vow. When couples make that lifetime commitment to each other in front of friends and family on one of the biggest days of their lives, few of them cite the 1,138 federal rights they will gain by making the promise of marriage. And the words “tax benefits” rarely come up in the best man’s toast.

Yet “rights and benefits” are what the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community has been using as its lead argument for decades. Recently, however, there’s been a significant shift in the movement, one that is evident in the debate around marriage in Maryland. Rather than focusing on the legal rights and benefits of marriage — such as Social Security payments, spousal health care coverage and joint tax filing — many advocates have begun to emphasize the personal aspects of the marital bond, like commitment and responsibility. This paradigm shift was based on more than just savvy intuition; it’s grounded in substantial public opinion research.

What sort of research might that be?

At Third Way, for example, we went beyond traditional polling and conducted a series of innovative and intensive one-on-one interviews — akin to the sort of market research tool used by the Fortune 500. Those interviews proved revelatory and have profound implications for extending marriage to lesbian and gay couples. We started with a simple question: “What does marriage mean to you?” People spoke of the kinds of things you hear in a wedding ceremony: lifetime commitment, responsibility and fidelity. They called marriage “a big step” and “the most important decision of one’s life.” Nobody talked about legal rights or taxes.

Then we asked them why gay people might want to get married. The overwhelming answer? “I don’t know.” But when we probed deeper, we found that they did have some idea — they had heard the messages from LGBT advocates. They would talk about how gay couples want rights, benefits, equality and fairness. Not surprisingly, that led them to the idea of civil unions, because they told us that if you want legal rights, you should have a legal contract. But that (in their minds) had nothing to do with marriage.

To them, all the talk about rights indicated that gay couples “just don’t get it” — that they couldn’t really understand the true purpose of marriage. This feeling was reinforced by images many had seen of gay weddings held en masse, some during raucous gay pride parades. One research subject was particularly upset by a picture we showed of a lesbian couple getting married because the women were wearing jeans. He observed that he and his wife had taken six months to plan their wedding, and said: “To me, it looks like they called up the day before and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go get married?’” Those interviewed saw a wedding as a joyful but weighty occasion, freighted with solemn, lifelong vows.

It’s not a foreign concept; it’s easier to get behind a civil rights issue when you are able to identify and find common ground with the group of people hoping to be freed from discrimination. And yet, something with this “rights and benefits” strategy must be working, at least just a tiny bit. The latest polling data has 53 percent of Americans supporting legal gay marriage, which is up from up from 47 percent last year.

Which doesn’t men I disagree with Erickson and Cowan’s theorizing. I agree the issue of marriage equality needs to be humanized, and not rooted only in semantics about filing tax returns and sharing child custody. But there’s also something very charged about removing love and romance from the marriage equality conversation entirely — given that many heteros don’t ever want to think about two guys kissing, or two girls pleasuring each other — and painting the debate very plainly: heterosexuals have something that homosexuals do not, and that’s not right.

Get Queerty Daily

Subscribe to Queerty for a daily dose of #language #marriage stories and more


  • Harbo

    So we’re playing semantics now. Maybe Erickson and Cowan are on to something. Does “loving commitments” sound less threatening to the bigots than “Gay marriage?” Maybe. But it doesn’t matter what we call it, the diehard haters are still going to object to it. The only way is simply to do it and let them deal with it. Human rights are human rights whatever you may choose to call them.

  • Scott Bonzitski

    Well, well, well… If people have not figured it out yet, let me enlighten you… The only reason that gays are pushing for “marriage” is because, just like a lawyer, you aim for the extreme and THEN, ONLY THEN, after people decide you do NOT deserve it, do you “settle” for something “less”. In our case, civil unions. Once people “think” they [do not want to] realize that we are not “entitled” to “marriage”, we get what “we” truly wan, civil unions and equal to the law. My partner and I of 15+ years do not want “marriage”, just the same conveniences dutifully deserved! SB

  • Silver

    Agreed. A rose by any other name would still be a member of the genus Rosa. This argument is absurd on its face; the fact that the couples surveyed could not think of reasons why gay people might want to get married has little to do with gay advocacy being directed the wrong way and more to do with them not seeing gay people as people, per se. Those who think of sexual orientation of a choice or a lifestyle alone will be unconvinced by any argument privileging love and commitment as reasons why gay people ought to have the right to marry just as they are unconvinced by the argument for rights.

    This quote is particularly stupid: “One research subject was particularly upset by a picture we showed of a lesbian couple getting married because the women were wearing jeans. He observed that he and his wife had taken six months to plan their wedding, and said: “To me, it looks like they called up the day before and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go get married?'” Those interviewed saw a wedding as a joyful but weighty occasion, freighted with solemn, lifelong vows.”

    It’s called a non-traditional marriage, and lesbians do not have a monopoly on them. I’d be interested to know the ages and the socioeconomic status of the couples surveyed.

  • Mike in Asheville

    @Scott Bonzitski: Sorry Scott, but let me enlighten you.

    My partner and I of 25 years, filed for Domestic Partnerships while California residents and married in Massachusetts 3 years ago after Mass changed its laws that allowed residents of states that would recognize the marriage to also marry there.

    As registered domestic partners, our partnership was NEVER recognized by insurance companies nor financial institutions thwarting our ability to take advantage of any opportunity for “family” or “partnership” benefits including discount rates and coverage for partner’s health insurance.

    After moving to NYC and then marrying in MA, my partner was working in NJ. Even though NJ’s Supreme Court ordered that gay couples be allowed to enter civil unions that are fully equal to marriage (including recognizing gay marriages preformed outside NJ as civil unions), my partner was denied time-and-time again the right to include me as a spouse and receive our benefits. Typically, the response from insurance companies and financial institutions replied that benefits were due legal spouses of married employees.

    After taking a position in NYC, and with just a little extra effort, under New York law, our marriage was fully recognized as a legal marriage and we received our benefits. Whether dealing with health insurance benefits, car insurance discounts, housing, financial opportunities AND even dealing with NY State DMV, our marriage counted as a marriage.

    Bottom line: civil unions ARE separate and not equal. By separating gays into a class of civil unions, our opportunity to be recognized as a legal couple with equal opportunities as marriage couples will NEVER to equal; separate CANNOT, by definition, ever be equal.

    Stop selling ourself and our community short; sure it may take another 10 years, but same-sex marriage equality will be a reality.

  • Scott

    When I was in college a female friend got married to a man. They were both in their early 20’s and it was the first marriage for both. They went to a justice of the peace wearing jeans with only immediate family present. They threw a “reception” a few days later in their parents’ backyard. It was a clam bake and everyone wore summertime apparel. They requested no presents. I applaud those who recognize that the seriousness of a commitment does not require a public spectacle. Those who feel it’s an affront to not have an elaborate, costly “wedding” must be making money off weddings.

  • Scott Bonzinski

    @Mike in Asheville:
    “As registered domestic partners, our partnership was NEVER recognized by insurance companies nor financial institutions thwarting our ability to take advantage of any opportunity for “family” or “partnership” benefits including discount rates and coverage for partner’s health insurance.”

    I’m sorry that you are/were in this situation. My partner works for NASA and we DO have domestic partnership benefits. I do NOT need to be “enlightened” per say. I can tell that YOU are though. That is WHY I posted. You just need to work for a company that realizes that you are a HUMAN and NOT someone who they think does not deserve to live their own lives. We also have legal documents enabling us many of the same “benefits” srt8 couples have. You can too. Just do the research and “skirt” the current laws…SB

  • Tom

    @Scott; not everybody can just change jobs to find one that wants to give their civil unions the same rights. What if none in your field do? You shouldn’t have to rely on the goodness of your employer’s or insurance company’s hearts for them to respect your union. With a married couple, they wouldn’t get to deny like that.

    Also, non-marriage unions aren’t recognized state-to-state, there’s no vehicle for civil unions or domestic partnerships to be recognized federally, which would affect things like immigration or taxes. The legal documents that you can draft up are expensive and can still be ignored, especially if you’re in another state. It isn’t fair.

    I think it’s way harder to create an entirely new system in the government that’s EXACTLY like marriage, except for the name. I’d rather fight for actual, legal marriage than a separate but equal version. It’ll take a ton of effort either way.

  • Scott Bonzitski

    @Tom: Yes, it will take time…BUT, we are not willing to let the “others” decide OUR fate. WE utilize the avenues we have in place now, for you see, we may not be around when “others” finally come to their senses and allow US the rights WE deserve. We are planning for the future NOW in our own way by “bypassing” the obstinate ones and living OUR lives by NOT being told what WE want/need ~nor~ do not want/deserve. Stand your ground, you are to be commemorated…we are just surviving with the only opportunities we are ALLOWED at this moment. We have lived the past 50 years and realize that we are fortunate to have what we do NOW. The future is less uncertain…SB

  • Tom

    @Scott Oh I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t take advantage of domestic partnerships or anything like that now, I thought you were saying that we shouldn’t also fight for marriage equality. That’s what I was disagreeing with. If that’s a misunderstanding on my part, I apologize. If I lived in a place with domestic partnerships or civil unions I’d absolutely get one of those and do what I could to protect my relationship with what’s available.

  • Scott Bonzitski

    @Tom: No need to apoligize, it was just a miscommunication. That is why I perfer to speak to people face-to-face because so many things can be misconstrued via posting. No offense taken, none ment. We are lucky to be able to have what we do. We just try not to be steered by the ones who do not want us to have it. Therefore, we research (and hope) that one day we can ALL be treated equally and fairly. As long as we have bigots out there who want us to live the live’s THEY want us to, we are going to do our darndest to circumnavigate the “system” to survive amongst them…SB

  • J. R. Braden

    We having loving commitments now. We don’t need to fight for permission to be in a loving commitment. We’re gay and we’re fighting for marriage. I don’t give a damn what these Christians think, I will continue fighting for the right to marry, have my marriage recognized throughout the US, and call it marriage if I damn well please.

  • Zed

    i don’t want special rights, i want equal rights, you dink

  • Jeffree

    Str8 people, even the well-intentioned ones don’t understand lots-of-things about SSM: First, they’re confusing the legal aspects of marriage with the religious parts. Some people hear “gay marriage” & all think about is the actual wedding, or worse they think churches will be forced to perform same-gender weddings.

    Second, all this talk of “civil unions” has kinda muddied the waters in many str8 folks’ brains: they dont comprehend that CU’s don’t provide the same legal and (federal) tàx benefits, or that being CU’d in one state doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all in another state.

    Yeah, it would help to better portray the touchy feely stuff about love & togetherness, but we can’t stop educating people about ways we’re disadvantaged in terms of laws & taxes & adoption, too.

  • Jeffree

    Also I like crap and lesbians.

  • Cam

    And that is exactly what the gay community did years ago when we were told by the exact same type of people that we needed to talk about Rights, because if we talked about being with the person we loved etc… then people would just point us to “Civl Unions” So basically these guys just took the same studies from then and reversed the outcome.

  • robert in NYC

    The sooner the so called “christians”, among others, realize that religious and civil marriage are two different things, the better. Religion does NOT own civil marriage, the states do when they issue marriage licenses and certificates of marriage for both religious and civil ceremonies. Further, civil marriage does not mandate procreation or make any reference to it, at least not at the several straight civil marriages I’ve attended. Procreation is not the primary purpose of marriage, merely a secondary. Love is first and foremost the reason why to people commit to one another. nothing more. Using procreation to deny us marriage is nothing more than a red herring steeped in its origin of religious bigotry. If they insist on procreation, then they’ll have to subscribe to the notion that straight couples who choose to not procreate or cannot likewise should also be banned. They can’t have it both ways, all or nothing.

  • Jim Hlavac

    Marriage, schmarriage — these people against us don’t want any word 100,000 words either side of marriage in the dictionary for our relationships. Many of them just want us gone, singly, coupled, and as a whole group. They want us to find the girl of their dreams, and they’re not even playing matchmaker, nor can come with enough available women for us gay guys; there’s just not enough single never married women hanging around for each of us. Though why someone would inflict me on a woman, I don’t know. What did the poor gal do?

  • Joe

    They can say it anyway they like, i don’t agree to it. Never have and Never will

  • Jeffree

    @Joe: If you don’t agree with it, don’t marry another guy. Just realize that marriage equality exists in some US states and several foreign countries, so you better get used to it. The tide is turning, and you’ll be in the undertow.

  • justiceontherocks

    @Joe: It’s not up to you to “agree to it,” Junior. It’s not your turn to play king today.

    Why don’t you people spend your time on something productive instead of fighting battles you’ve already lost?

  • D Smith

    @Scott Bonzinski: but your partner doesnt even work for a “company” that recognizes their humanity… case in point DOMA.

Comments are closed.