The Magazine

Husbands and Wives

What gay marriage won't change.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By TOD LINDBERG
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But one should call things by their proper name, no? Well, yes, but if we cease calling something by its proper name--or rather, start calling something by an improper name--do we change the thing? If, as Lee Harris argues, "marriage" exists not by virtue of a "right" to marry but has in fact been constituted from time immemorial by the union of a man and woman itself, then the true constitution of marriage does not change because the term is applied to two men or two women. A marriage of two men or two women is simply not the same as a marriage between a man and woman, and it does not become the same by virtue of calling it by the same name. A recent review in THE WEEKLY STANDARD by Margaret Boerner noted that English is a language of few synonyms: Most other languages get by with a single term for both a study (where you read) and a studio (where you paint). We could probably get along reasonably well with a single term for male-female union and male-male and female-female union. Gay marriage will remain "gay marriage" even if the term "gay" drops out. Nor will marriage as such need to be classified as "straight" or "heterosexual" when a man and a woman are involved. When people are introduced to a gay married couple, their sense of the social structure underlying the marriage will be quite different from their sense of the social structure uniting a married man and woman. This is not a matter of anti-gay animus but of the reality of social construction.

As much as gay-marriage proponents would like to do so, we are unlikely to be able to devise a complete solution to the problem of making two things the same when they differ in fact. Stubborn language of the sort that is interwoven into the social structure will persist in reflecting people's sense of the reality around them. For example, when my wife, Tina, introduces me to someone, it always closely follows this form: "This is my husband, Tod." And when I introduce Tina, as I did in the previous sentence, it is as "my wife." There is, of course, another term for each of us, and that is "spouse." But I don't think she has ever introduced me as "my spouse." In fact, I do not recall ever having been introduced to someone's "spouse" as such.

The utility of the term "spouse" is chiefly as a generic in relation to a mixed-sex group of people who, say, work together: "Spouses welcome," meaning, those who are married to the members of this particular group are free to attend the event in question. And one can already feel the term "spouse" pushing outward from its original boundaries in the "spouses welcome" phrase. Because if spouses are welcome, chances are you can bring your fiancée--or boyfriend or girlfriend or partner or live-in, as appropriate.

Since the 1970s, the Census Bureau has collected data on cohabitation out of wedlock by counting POSSLQs, Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters, in its monthly Current Population Survey. The term is pronounced "possuhl-cue." A reasonable response to this classification scheme is to treat it as ripe for comedy, as the broadcast journalist Charles Osgood did in his 1981 book, There's Nothing That I Wouldn't Do If You Would Be My POSSLQ. Another entry, this time in the "young adult" category of fiction, is Eve Bunting's 1987 Be My POSSLQ, where the point is actually that the young man and woman sharing the living quarters have a relationship that is platonic. It is, in any case, a distinctly unlovely term. But one of the reasons the term is so awkward is that what it's getting at is a complicated thing to describe: an unmarried man and woman who are living together as a couple, meaning that they are involved romantically and in most cases sexually, and intend to continue to do so and be so. Clearly, this is a state of affairs prevalent enough to deserve a status, some acknowledgment of a pattern of social practice--but, I think, not much. POSSLQ will do. At least, that is, until someone raises the inevitable question: What about an unmarried man and man or woman and woman who are living together as a couple, meaning that they are involved romantically and in most cases sexually, and intend to continue to do so and be so?

This, too, is a matter of some complexity for the Census Bureau. Don't we need a classification for the same-sex version of the phenomenon, PSSSLQ (I leave the pronunciation to the reader)? Oddly enough, POSSLQ has its origins in a sense of scandal quite absent from the same-sex variety of cohabitation, in that an unmarried man and woman living together were once thought to be acting disreputably, whereas homosexual couples didn't officially exist, such relations being subsumed under categories such as "lodgers" and "roomers."