Gay Marriage or Same-Sex Marriage?

Hands Linked - 2007 San Francisco Gay Pride
A couple walks, hands linked, in the 2007 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. In 1958, lesbian and gay relationships were targeted so aggressively by legislators that simply mailing a gay community newsletter often violated indecency laws. Photo: David Paul Morris / Getty Images.

When I first began writing about same-sex marriage on this site, I used the term "gay marriage" to refer to unions meeting this description. I did so for two reasons:

  • The term "gay marriage" is much more common, so readers are more likely to go to Google or another search engine and type "gay marriage" than they are to type "same-sex marriage." Since I wanted readers to be able to easily find my writing on the subject, I went with the more common phrase.
  • I had no objection to the phrase, since the only people I knew who were interested in same-sex marriage identified as lesbian or gay or identified as bisexuals in lesbian or gay relationships.

Some readers took me to task for this. At first, I was skeptical--some of my friends in the LGBT rights movement use the phrase "gay marriage," and I was reluctant to switch terminology before the disenfranchised community itself did. I was reminded of the infamous Native American debacle, in which non-indigenous writers thought they were being sensitive by describing native American tribes as Native American rather than American Indian--not realizing that the majority of native Americans used the term American Indian, and preferred to be described as such.

But now I've switched to "same-sex marriage." Why? Four reasons:

  1. Same-sex marriages need not actually involve lesbian or gay partners. One or both partners might be bisexual or asexual--or even heterosexual. It's not really any of my business.
  2. Likewise, many opposite-sex marriages are technically gay marriages. Gay men and lesbians often marry members of the opposite sex (who might be heterosexual or might also be gay) and for a variety of reasons (denial, mutually agreed-upon financial convenience, or simply to construct a more effective closet, to name three examples that come to mind).
  3. There has been so much hostility directed against same-sex marriage under the terminology of "gay marriage" that the phrase almost sounds like a pejorative now. The more accurate terminology of same-sex marriage has a less painful history.
  4. It has become clear to me that in recent years the gay rights movement has largely adopted the language of same-sex marriage. While not all gay rights activists use the term, there has been a noticeable increase in its use by activists, and a decline in the use of the phrase "gay marriage," over the past few years.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to use the phrase "gay marriage," nor am I promising that I will never use the phrase again. But I think that the phrase "same-sex marriage" is both more accurate and more sensitive to the concerns of same-sex couples seeking equal treatment under the law.