Marriage Equality and The Importance of Language

I was originally asked to write about how the recent marriage equality referendum in Ireland affected queer rights in Northern Ireland. I feel woefully unqualified to discuss global politics, so here is a post about marriage equality in Australia (where I live) and why it, and language, matters.

There have been several articles lately on why marriage equality in Australia is ‘tokenistic,’ a ‘rubber stamp,’ and how other queer issues are more pressing and important.

To which I say, sort of, but you’re missing the point.

Because marriage equality is not just about marriage. It’s about recognising queer relationships as equal to straight ones; about recognising queer people as equal to straight ones. About removing the legal stigma around these relationships as second class relationships, and queer people as second class citizens. Because the marriage equality fight is about equalising, no word, no label but marriage will do. Anything less would continue to promote queer people and queer relationships as fundamentally different and secondary.

Bringing queer relationships on a legal par with straight ones (because that is what marriage equality will do) will have an enormous flow-on effect on how the community treats queer people, and on individual queer people’s lives. Whether they choose to get married or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the government, the law, and their wider society will have decided that they are equal. That they and their relationships are worthy. That they can call their partners ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ if applicable and that this is recognised and their relationship is understood and valued.

Because how one refers to one’s partner matters. There is currently no way for a queer woman to refer to her female partner in a gendered way. ‘Partner’ is obviously gender-neutral, as is ‘fiancee’ (when spoken), and ‘girlfriend’ means ‘girl who is my friend’ to the average straight person (which is highly irritating, as ‘boyfriend’ is never used in such a way). This inevitably leads to assumptions that one’s partner is male, and one must choose whether to undertake the awkward and risky dance of correcting these. Alternately, if one has a ‘husband’ or ‘wife,’ there is no confusion. There is legal backing and legitimacy to one’s relationship. There is dignity and safety.

Marriage equality is not just about the opportunity to marry the person you love. Marriage equality is about the queer community gaining the respect, self-esteem, protection and societal validation that it craves and deserves. Of course marriage equality will not solve all queer issues, but it will make a tremendous difference to many of them.

On a similar note:

How we use language makes a huge difference to how we experience the world. If there isn’t a word for something, describing it to others, discussing it, even thinking about it becomes so much harder. Currently, there are words for almost every obscure variety of straight relationship there is (I’m looking at you, third-cousin-once-removed). But there are no words for many relationships that involve queer people. This does create an intense otherness, and an invisibility.

For instance, how does one easily refer to my-mother-who-is-not-my-biological-mother-but-her-life-partner-and-who-raised-me-like-a-mother? Yes, one can substitute ‘mother’, but when no-one else expects you to have two mothers, conversations can become extremely confusing by referring to two different people both as ‘mother.’

It is my hope that marriage equality, and the ability to refer to queer people as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ will help to either reduce people’s assumptions about family structure, gender and sexuality, and/or bring in new words to help recognise and legitimise the relationships of queer families.

Now Australia just has to legalise it.


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