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John Kerry on marriage equality: It’s not about a word

Marriage equality

By Adam Bink

In the comments, Sagesse notes a well-written editorial in the Boston Globe from Sen. John Kerry. An excerpt:

But it’s not just in politics that we have come to a “better place’’ – it’s also the example of thousands of gay marriages in Massachusetts that pushed many of us along in our own journeys. In preparing for the 2008 presidential debates, I felt at times that it was an exercise in legalese to articulate differences between the civil unions I favored and marriage. But seven years after marriage equality became law in Massachusetts, it’s no longer theory, it’s reality.

Seeing is believing. Many of us who once believed civil unions were sufficient to protect legal rights because we thought of marriage as a religious sacrament between a man and a woman, have seen that no church has been forced to do anything that contradicts its teachings. But when two committed people apply for a Massachusetts marriage license, they are equal whether they are gay or straight. It’s not about a word – it’s about equality under the law.

I know a lot of people who are hung up on that one word. Folks who support all the rights, but ask, “can’t you call it something else?” I’ve always responded by asking how they would feel being forced into a separate and unequal arrangement… asking one’s partner to “civil union me” instead of “marry me.” It’s indeed more than just a word, it’s about equal respect for relationships. To many, only the freedom to marry (if you choose) brings that respect.

How do you respond to those who are hung up on “a word,” or another issue beyond rights?

27 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Straight Ally #3008  |  July 10, 2011 at 11:27 am

    It's more straightforward than I used to perceive it: people are being barred from a civil institution based on sexual orientation. Decades ago, this might have seemed reasonable, since homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 (for a great radio piece on this, I recommend This American Life's "81 Words."… ). Now, we know better; the medical evidence has moved forward, and society is slowly but surely following.

  • 2. Ann S.  |  July 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm


  • 3. Sheryl_Carver  |  July 10, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I wish the "we" you referred to in your last sentence, Straight Ally, included the entire US population. Thanks to FOX, NOM, various RWRs (Right Wing Religions), etc, a sizable percentage still believe it's not only an "illness" but, even in the face of current research, a "choice."

    On the up side, society is moving forward. Just wish it wasn't so damned slow.

  • 4. Bob  |  July 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    It's nice to have a U.S. president,,, who is human enough to show leadership , in this sense bringing new meaning to our potential to EVOLVE and grow personally , he has made this process fashionalble,, setting the standard for ever learning,,, educating, ourselves,, as our world unfolds around us,,,, very brilliant of him to share his personal process,,,, we all can EVOLVE,,,, YES WE CAN!!!!!!!!

  • 5. Chrys  |  July 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I tend to say the following: "We don't want to be unionized, we want to be married."

    At the NOM summer tour stop in Harrisburg, one of the speakers (may have been BB?) made the follwing statement: Marriage is good. My reply from across the street?

    Yes, marriage is good – that's why we want it!

  • 6. Sean  |  July 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I've always seen it as a "separate, but equal" argument…so long as it's different, it is inherently unequal. That said, if it ever comes to a point where the difference between a "yes" and a "no" on marriage equality is whether or not it has a different name, I would be willing to accept "civil unions" over nothing at all. Then, once "civil unions" were finally accepted and legalized, one could push for the full title of marriage, as rightfully deserved.

    However, I am a straight ally and not gay/lesbian myself, so I cannot really speak as if I was in the same situation. In the end, I still believe the title of marriage is what everyone deserves, straight or gay.

  • 7. Carol  |  July 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Since 1999 we have had domestic partnerships in California. They are intended to be functionally like marriage as far as legal rights and duties of partners are concerned. In 2008, 52% of voters bought the separate-but-equal argument, but polls tell us that's no longer true.

    Separate is not equal. In the Prop 8 trial, there was moving testimony by one of the plaintiffs about how she wanted to be married like other people.

  • 8. karen in kalifornia  |  July 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    How do you respond to those who are hung up on “a word,” or another issue beyond rights?
    You respond by not voting for them as I didn't for Keryy in 2004 nor Obama in 2008. Looks
    like I'll be voting Green again next year.

  • 9. karen in kalifornia  |  July 10, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Or as I say to my friends here in CA, we were "notarized." They look at me funny, but what other way can I express it?

  • 10. karen in kalifornia  |  July 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Sean, I can't even count how my state now have Constitutions which DO NOT ALLOW marriage equality and in most of them do not even allow dps of cus.
    Thanks for the thought though.

  • 11. Leo  |  July 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    We can't conclude that everyone who voted for Prop 8 bought that argument. Consider, for example, these alternative positions:
    1. "I know DPs aren't equal, and that's unfortunate, but NOM's ads have scared me, and I'm choosing what I think is the lesser evil"
    2. "I know DPs aren't equal, and that's the way it should be" [unabashed bigot]
    3. "Who cares, I would vote against DPs, too!"

  • 12. Lora  |  July 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    My response: "If you call it something different, it IS something different."

  • 13. Bryce  |  July 10, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    As Charles Cooper said defending Prop 8 in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: "It is just a word, but the word IS essentially the institution."

  • 14. Bryce  |  July 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    The only time I ever engaged in this argument, I pulled out the Yellow Pages and asked the person to look up a "Domestic Partnership Planner". And when they said all they could find were wedding planners, I told them that is precisely what I meant: marriage has a cultural (and legal) significance that nothing else will have.

  • 15. Sagesse  |  July 11, 2011 at 5:07 am

    For those keeping tabs on Judge Walker.

    Gearing up at the Bohemian Grove

  • 16. dsc77  |  July 11, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Super me

  • 17. Ronnie  |  July 11, 2011 at 6:53 am

    "Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth." ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


  • 18. peterplumber  |  July 11, 2011 at 7:41 am

    I am not sure if Kathleen has posted this yet. I assume this is the schedule for the release of the videos from the Prop 8 hearings in Walker's courtroom.

    The parties shall meet the following time schedule.
    If there were reported hearings, the parties shall designate and, if necessary, cross-designate the transcripts pursuant to 9th Cir. R. 10-3.1. If there were no reported hearings, the transcript deadlines do not apply.
    Tue., July 5, 2011
    Mediation Questionnaire due. If your registration for Appellate ECF is confirmed after this date, the Mediation Questionnaire is due within one day of receiving the email from PACER confirming your registration.
    Mon., July 25, 2011
    Transcript shall be ordered.
    Tue., August 23, 2011
    Transcript shall be filed by court reporter.
    Mon., October 3, 2011
    Appellant's opening brief and excerpts of record shall be served and filed pursuant to FRAP 32 and 9th Cir. R. 32-1.
    Tue., November 1, 2011
    Appellee's answering brief and excerpts of record shall be served and filed pursuant to FRAP 32 and 9th Cir. R. 32-1.

  • 19. Leo  |  July 11, 2011 at 8:13 am

    From the looks of it, I would guess it's for the appeal of Judge Ware's denial of the Motion to Vacate.

  • 20. june  |  July 11, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Is it just me, or does Kerry's editorial look an awful lot like something designed to pave the way for Obama to come out in support of marriage after having previously supported civil unions?

  • 21. Dave in CA  |  July 11, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I always turn it back and ask an open-ended question when this comes up: "Yes, I want to use the same word you use – why shouldn't I ?; unless you think my relationship is not as good as yours?"

    I get tired of being put on the defensive; why do I have to be the one to defend my point of view when it comes to this issue? I think it's time we ask the nay-sayers to defend their PoV instead.

    I wish the press and pundits and interviewers would take a similar approach. When journalists ask public figures whether they are in favor or marriage equality, and the response is that they are NOT in favor of equality, the immediate follow-up question should be:

    "So which rights do you reserve for yourself that you are not willing to extend to others?"

    (In other words, the subtext of the question is not "gay people are different and maybe they should or should not have equal rights,so let's debate that and their characteristics" but it instead "what makes you so special, ant-equality folks, that you get to reserve rights only for yourselves?")

    Force the other side to specify and enumerate exactly which rights and benefits they don't want to share with anybody else.

  • 22. Jordan  |  July 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I'd like to point out that this did come up in the Perry trial. I don't remember if it was in the original trial or in the appeal, but it was when we came to the argument over the word itself, and the judge pointedly asked, basically, what this was all about if it was only for the word. Why 'marriage' was separate from 'civil unions', if the only distinctions were the class of people.

    When people debate the word with me, I point to the phrase I remember the judge used to berrate the defense in the trial, "Animus for animus' sake." When you designate a word like that- when you state that you can have all the rights, but call it something else- that's 'Separate, but Equal'. It's only purpose is to serve as a reminder that one institution is fundamentally different from the other (implied 'inferior' to the other). Regardless, there is no functional excuse for it, and therefore it is animus for animus' sake. There is no reason to call it a civil union other than to emphatically imply that it's not the same thing as a 'real' marriage.

  • 23. Jon  |  July 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Oh, they can't get married, he's black and she's white.

    Don't get hung up on a word, you two can get a civil union.

    Is that OK?

    I bet suddenly it's more than just a word :)

  • 24. Elizabeth_Oakes  |  July 11, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I don't pull any punches on this one. I tell such people: No, YOU can call it something else, you don't own the word and administration of religious blessings or sacraments are OPTIONAL in this country, thank you very much. History– real history with documentation behind it, not religious versions of history–show that marriage was a civil contract long before the European church decided it was a sacrament in the 15th century, rather late in the game. In fact, the story of Heloise and Abelard has a twist concerning civil vs.religious marriage; Abelard's marriage to another woman before a notary–as was legally required–was held to be valid and the religious wedding he had with Heloise was not binding. Couples can always go to the religious institution of their choice to have their union blessed after they obtain a civil marriage; however, such institutions can't be trusted to administer marriage fairly, which is why they can call what they do to solemnize a union something else. You can have a church wedding if you're into rites, but only civil marriage will assure your RIGHTS.

  • 25. Helen in Ireland  |  July 12, 2011 at 2:15 am

    I am a heterosexual woman who married in the Catholic church nearly 25 years ago, and during those years my spouse came to the realisation that she is in fact transgendered. Through a lot of pain and heartbreak we have realised that we still love the true person and wish to remain married. However, we are Irish and it seems the proposed Irish Gender Recognition Act will follow the British example, and require my wife to seek a divorce from me before she will be granted a new borth certificate following her Gender Rallignment Surgery in September. In other words, we will be forcibly divorced by an Irish state that only instituted divorce in the 1980's, and required sign for a civil partnership which grants only a small proportion of the rights of marriage.

    We may be the test case against the Irish State if this GRS comes to pass. I will NOT, after abiding by the vows I took in all good faith and sincerity 25 years ago, allow petty civil servants define MY MARRIAGE!

    BTW, I have not attended a Catholic service for many years save as a witness to a friends marriage or a mourner at a friend's funeral. I am Catholic no longer, and yet I still regard myself as fully and legally married, without the religious trappings. Why? Because I paid the state for a MARRIAGE license not the Catholic church; if I have problems with the rights owed to me as a married person, I address them with the State, not the church; and if I had taken the option to divorce, it would have been granted to me by the State and most assuredly NOT by the church.

    If Adam and Eve got married now, they would still have had to apply for a state marriage lisence for it to be valid.

    Many people profer the argument that the civil right of marriage for both gays and straight people should be called a civil union, and leave the word 'marriage' to the religious ceremony. It should be pointed out that a hell of a lot of heterosexual marriages are performed in non-religious settings, and I think somebody should ask THOSE couples if they want to cede the word and meaning of marriage to the churches only. My guess is that they would be appalled to think that THEY would be diminished to a second-class union.

    Words have power, and marriage is probably one of the most powerful words in the English language right now. ..


  • 26. Ann S.  |  July 12, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Helen, thank you so much for your powerful story and powerful words.

  • 27. Dwight  |  July 12, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I had this argument with my father, he was willing to grant same sex couples every single right a married couple had, as long as they don’t call it a "Marriage". He is hung up on the word alone.

    He had a hard time understanding why I was not willing for that one ( to him ) tiny little concession.

    I told him that myself, and my wife and my children are committed to making this county what our founders dreamed, a nation of equals, that does not look at a person’s history, their gender, their sex, their orientation, that all are treated equally, that justice wears a blindfold, there is a symbolism there that far too many people simply don’t understand.

    This isn’t a gay issue, this is a patriotic issue. Our founders created an imperfect society with goals that they could not achieve in their lifetimes. That fight continued during the civil war, and during woman’s suffrage, and continues today with your fight.

    I don’t happen to be gay, none of my children happen to be gay, but that does not diminish my commitment to help my fellow Americans in the gay community to win this fight.

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