Marriage rights, writ wrong

With the big decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 — which banned homogamous marriage — the terminology used is not today’s lead story. But it is a good time to reflect on it.

So, here are the results of last’s weeks Family Inequality reader poll, which asked two questions:

  • When the state permits marriage between pairs of men or women, what do you call it?
  • What to you call marriage between a man and a woman?

With more than 400 page views, there were 58 responses to the first question, 42 to the second, and here is how they broke down:

As I wrote in, “Homogamy Unmodified,” we appear to be largely in an uncomfortable terminological state that pairs “marriage,” which refers to unions between men and women, with “same-sex marriage.” In other words, for a good share of readers, “the normative or hegemonic case requires no specification while others carry a modifier.” It’s not our fault; it’s a tough situation.

Here’s a little bit of perspective to help sort it out.

First, on the positive side, this response from someone who I don’t know:

I adopted your terms for it when you first published the post on hetero/homogamous. These words are so incredibly useful, since I write about sex and gender a lot, and have discussed heterogamous couples with the same gender presentation, etc. It sounds nicer than same-sex marriage and provides an equal term for “opposite-sex” (bleh!) marriage.

That’s the leading 3% for you: Bold, confident, comfortable in her terms. Much more common is a response like this, which I received via email:

[Homogamy] is a fine term for researchers, and I fully get why you like it. But it will never catch on with the press and public, and anyone using it in a speech or a press statement would be met with blank stares and/or hostility for using such big academic words…

I know for a fact this person is wiser than I am, and I can’t disagree. But I hope that’s not true in the long run.

The long run

Consider one piece of historical precedent: polygamy and monogamy. There was a time when monogamy and polygamy were obscure scientific terms. Here’s a footnote that might have elicited some blank stares in 1887, when Herbert Spencer published the third edition of The Principles of Sociology:

The federal government’s war on Mormonism at the end of the 19th Century brought polygamy to the American reading public’s attention, both as a practice and as a term. Here’s the ngrams chart showing the frequency of polygamy and monogamy from 1840 to 2008 in American English:

Most of the references to monogamy back then seem to have been in scientific writings or political discussion of polygamy. Now, of course, it’s a commonly-understood term for a lifestyle choice:

So, try not to get too hung up on the moment, on today’s research paper or the way you learned “homogamy” in grad school. We should try to take the long view (especially those of us who have tenure).


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

4 responses to “Marriage rights, writ wrong

  1. Leah

    Thank you for quoting my comment!

    For some examples of how I’ve used these terms, I blog at about Japan, gender, and the media. I did a search for “gamous” on my blog, and got a few examples, two of which are below:

    “This is a slice-of-life manga about a normal relationship, but Takeuchi also problematizes her and her friends’ status as sexual minorities, as people in heterogamous relationships or who are cisgendered don’t have to deal with these issues.” (“My Darling is (Also) a Woman: honey & honey”).

    Also, “As for Japan, in Part 1, I mentioned the blocking of the Pill in Japan till 1999 (see the bibliography in Part 1 for more information). However, political power isn’t just about sexual health issues: under the Japanese Civil Code, it is currently illegal for a married couple to retain their surnames. (Either the man or the woman may change, which is a step up from the laws of many US states, but one party must change. Homogamous marriage is not recognized in Japan, either.)” (“Like Goldfish: The Sexual and Cultural Revolution in Ôoku, Vols. 3 & 4, Part 2”)


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