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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The Census 2000 questionnaire asks the householder who completes the form to identify others living there and to choose for each from a list answering the question "How is this person related to Person 1?" One may choose "husband/wife," "natural-born son/daughter," etc., but "if NOT RELATED to Person 1," the choice is "Roomer/boarder," "Housemate/roommate," "Unmarried partner," "Foster child," and "Other nonrelative." From the answer to this question and from the answers to the question of sex, male or female, for each person, the Census Bureau is able to obtain a count of "same-sex unmarried partner households" (allocating same-sex couples who check the "husband/wife" box to this category as well). Fifty-two percent of American households in 2000, or 54.5 million, were maintained by married couples. There were 4.9 million "unmarried-partner households," and of these, 594,000 were "same-sex unmarried partners."

"Unmarried partners" is a status one cannot ignore; it is more, sometimes much more, than nothing. It may, nowadays, come with a benefits package from employers, as well as commonly held property and children. It may entail state-sanctioned "civil union" in some cases. But the vagueness remains. I return to the problem of introductions. On the anecdotal evidence, introductions remain a socially unsettled matter: "my partner" (but couldn't that be a business partner?); "my life-partner" (a bit sententious); "my boyfriend" or "my girlfriend" (but while the former clearly denotes a sexual or romantic relationship in the case of gay men, the latter does not quite do the same job in relation to a lesbian couple, and in both cases, in the sexual context, don't these terms smell a bit of teen spirit?); "my lover" (the spirit has here aged into the Byronic late teens and early twenties); "my live-in" (straightforward enough, though also said of the help). When Tina or I introduced L., who lived with my sister-in-law K. for seven years, it was as "my sister-in-law"; true, there was nothing "in law" about L. and K. But L. took it as an acknowledgment of the seriousness of their relationship, as it was intended. And they were "Aunt K. and Aunt L." to our children, who may or may not have been old enough to understand the relationship between the two. On one hand, "aunt" is easy, since social practice has long had a place for honorary aunts and uncles. On the other hand, Aunt L.'s family status was clearly higher than that of "Uncle J.," my old friend.

And of course it is true that in the case of same-sex couples, but not in the case of man-woman couples, here matters traditionally must end. Marriage has been available to the latter, but the former are stuck with a status that they may (or may not) find unsatisfactory on account of its intrinsic ambiguity and elusiveness. Gay marriage is the proposed solution, the provision of a status available to all equally, straight or gay.

But will that be satisfactory, a real equality? If so, then the difference between a married heterosexual couple and a married gay or lesbian couple would be inconsequential insofar as the marriage is concerned. I'm afraid I don't think that's very likely.

IN THE CASE of gay marriage, what do you call the married people? Perhaps, indeed, "spouses." But there would then seem to be two possibilities. The use of the term in relation to gay marriage might cause "spouse" to acquire a primary association with same-sex coupledom. In that case, we are probably going to need another term for "spouse" in the sense of "spouses welcome." Or "spouse" retains its primarily generic applicability while also becoming a particular term for referring to either of two married men or of two married women in relation to each other.

It's also possible that some married gay men will refer to their "husbands" and that married lesbians will refer to their "wives." But what about the man or woman who is doing the referring in those two cases? Will the man referring to his husband consider himself his husband's "wife," or the woman referring to her wife consider herself a "husband"? It seems highly unlikely. (I mean this outside the context of camp, where such usages have long had currency.) Much more likely is that we will have a gay marriage consisting of either two husbands or two wives, or two spouses, in the very real and concrete sense that this is how each member of the couple will introduce the other.

Consider, for example, the famous consciousness-raising children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. Well, indeed she does--but what Heather does not have and is never going to have is a mommy and a daddy who are both women. There may (or may not) be roles typically associated with "mommy" or "daddy" assigned respectively to each of the two mommies. But even in the highly implausible case of the superimposition of a Father Knows Best-style division of family labor--Mommy 1 stays home, does the cooking and cleaning, takes care of Heather; Mommy 2 is the sole breadwinner, goes to the office every morning, gets home in time to read Heather a bedtime story before tucking her in for the night--Mommy 2 is nevertheless not "Daddy."

And I think this is true even in the case of some totalitarian-style language reform according to which either (a) a child, whether being raised by a same-sex or mixed-sex couple, is forbidden to use the terms "mommy" and "daddy" and must refer to each parent only by name; or (b) same-sex parents are required to assign themselves, one each, the title "mommy" or "daddy" and stick to it. (In the interests of avoiding stereotyping, you would probably also have to insist that opposite-sex parents classify themselves as "mommy" and "daddy" randomly, without regard to sex.)

In either case, the linguistic scenarios would have to contend with and would be understood only in the context of a shared social reality in which most children continue to be raised by a unit formerly known as a mommy, a woman, and a unit formerly known as a daddy, a man. The revolution required to excise this aspect of social reality from our shared experience would have to be truly comprehensive: I think it would entail the complete severing of child-rearing from marriage, perhaps à la Plato's Republic, or the mandate that there be equal numbers of same-sex marriages and male-female marriages, with children issuing from each category in equal numbers.

As with "mommy and daddy," so with "husband and wife." We may have gay marriage. But neither two married men nor two married women will ever be "husband and wife"--whereas a married man and woman will always be husband and wife. The language is not arbitrary. It is an indicator, once again, of a rather robust social reality. The extension of the term "marriage" to include same-sex unions may produce a certain formal equality. But that does not mean that marriage is the same whether between a man and a woman or between two men or two women. The extension of the legal status does not erase and in fact reveals an underlying difference, one that is going to continue to be marked by the language we speak and the way we live.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.