The M WordA proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in Britain in 2014 has passed its first major hurdle to becoming law when the lower house of Parliament passed the proposal 400-175 on Tuesday.

British law already allows for civil unions, which offer the exact same rights and privileges of marriage.  Since same-sex marriage is already recognized in England in-all-but-name, the legal ramifications of this law should be negligible.  The real impact of this law will be social.  I’ll explain how, but first let me make the case against calling same-sex unions “marriage” even if they enjoy the exact same rights afforded to married couples.

Treated as equals vs. being thought of as equals

Personally, I oppose any legal recognition and/or regulation of same-sex relationships, including civil unions.  If you are going to create civil unions as an alternative institution to marriage, however, it is foolish to make it identical to marriage in every respect but the name.  It’s like saying “you can work at the same place I work at, make the same money I make, get the same health insurance I have, but you can’t call it a ‘job.’”[1]  Nevertheless, that is what England and other countries (including various states in the U.S.) have done.  They have created two institutions that are identical in all-but-name.

Homosexuals have always said they just want the same rights as everyone else, so you would think that same-sex couples would be happy that they have secured the exact same rights as opposite-sex couples.  Such is not the case.  Now that they are being treated as equal, they want to be thought of as equals too, and see the difference in name as an impediment to achieving this social goal.  They argue that a difference in name implies that the two institutions – while legally identical – are still somehow different.  Furthermore, the reluctance to call identical institutions by identical names implies that the relationships of those in one institution are inferior to the relationships of those in the other.  They are partly right.  A difference in name does convey that the two institutions are somehow still different, but “different” does not necessarily imply that one is superior to the other.  As I’ll argue momentarily, people are reluctant to call same-sex relationships “marriage” because they believe the term specifically describes a particular kind of union – one that same-sex couples are incapable of forming.

While I am sympathetic to the “re-namers’” perspective, I still think a better case can be made for calling the two legally-identical institutions by different names.

A faulty presupposition

Those who claim civil unions that are identical to marriage in all-but-name must also be called “marriage” seem to presuppose that providing identical benefits to different groups requires that any and all distinctions between those groups be eliminated.  This is demonstrably false.  The Great Ape Project is attempting to obtain legal rights for apes that equal those of man.  If they succeed in doing so, would that mean we must begin calling apes “men.”  No.  They do not qualify for the name “men” because they are by nature something very different from men, even if they come to enjoy the same rights that men enjoy.  In a similar way, just because the rights of those who participate in the institution of marriage have been extended to same-sex couples does not mean we must describe the union of same-sex couples as “marriage.”[2]  The only reason to call both unions “marriage” is if both unions can be properly described by the term “marriage.”  Such is not the case, and thus we ought to call each union by different names.

Most people recognize that “marriage” means something in particular.  Historically speaking, marriage has always been understood to be the kind of relationship involving a union of sexual opposites with a natural propensity for reproduction.  It’s obvious that same-sex relationships, by nature, are simply not of the marital sort.  While many people are willing to extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, they are not willing to redefine the institution of marriage because doing so would gut marriage of its historic meaning.  To forge a definition of marriage that accommodates both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, the lowest common denominators must be sought.  “A union of sexual opposites with a natural propensity for reproduction” would have to be reduced to something like “a union of two people” to make that accommodation.  In doing so, the concept of sexual complimentarianism and the strong connection between marriage and reproduction – so vital to the historic concept of marriage – simply vanish!  That’s why even those who think same-sex couples should have the same rights as married couples are not willing to call their relationships “marriage”: Marital relationships have not changed, and thus they see no reason to redefine the historic understanding of a marital relationship out of existence simply to accommodate the desires of same-sex couples who want to use that name to garner social approval of their relationships.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing inconsistent with holding (1) that “marriage” only refers to relationships involving a union of sexual opposites with reproductive potential, and (2) that same-sex relationships should receive the same rights and responsibilities married couples enjoy.  One could argue that while same-sex couples should have the same rights as married couples, the term “marriage” does not properly describe their union, and thus their union should not be called a “marriage.”[3]  Calling their union by a different name does not imply that it is inferior to marriage, but simply different than marriage.  This approach preserves the historic understanding of marriage, while at the same time giving same-sex couples the same benefits enjoyed by married couples.

What’s in a name?

The fact that the two unions function differently in society is another reason for calling the identical institutions by non-identical names.  While both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are capable of loving and committing to one another, only a union involving sexual opposites is capable of producing children – a function that is vital to the perpetuation of society.  Since there is a socially significant difference between the two types of relationships, we are fully justified in making a nominal distinction between them as well.  “Marriage” should be reserved for the kinds of unions that contribute to the continuation of society, while other kinds of unions should be called by a different name such as “civil unions.”

This is nothing new.  We have always made a nominal distinction between marital relationships and other kinds of relationships.  We call relationships between blood-relation “family,” relationships between non-blood-relations “friendships,” and business relationships “partnerships.”  To say same-sex relationships should also be called by a distinct name is wholly in line with existing practice.  Given the distinctives of their relationships, their unions should no more be called “marriage” than non-blood relationships.

A third reason for calling two non-identical things by different names is because calling two non-identical things by the same name breeds confusion.  This is the social impact I spoke of earlier.  When marital relationships and non-marital relationships are both called “marriages” and the definition of marriage is adjusted accordingly to strip it of its historic connection to sexual complimentarianism and reproduction, society will inevitably lose sight the purpose and significance of “traditional” marital relationships.  As J. Budziszewski wrote:

Words must square with things. Things do not change natures just because we change the words by which we refer to them. We might decide to call dogs “cats,” but we would not thereby succeed in turning dogs into cats, because dogs and cats are different kinds of realities. In the same way, we might decide to call same-sex liaisons “marriages,” but we would not thereby succeed in turning these liaisons into marriages because they too are different kinds of realities.

You might think that if what I say is true, and the characteristics of things are not changed by the words that we use for them, then it makes no difference what words we use for them. Not so. It does make a difference. Although we cannot change dogs into cats, we can confuse ourselves by calling dogs cats. In the same way, although we cannot change same-sex liaisons into marriages, we can confuse ourselves by calling them marriages.[4]

There’s much more to a name than its phonetics.  Words have meanings.  Words refer to specific things.  When X refers to Y, but we call both Y and Z “X,” we will ultimately confuse ourselves about the nature of Y and X will lose its meaning.

There are good reasons for reserving “marriage” to refer exclusively to opposite-sex couples, and those reasons do not involve value judgments concerning homosexuality, or imply the superiority of opposite-sex relationships.

[1]As I’ve made the case elsewhere, there is no reason for the government to regulate same-sex relationships in any manner.  But if a government chooses to do so, and chooses to afford them with the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities afforded to marital relationships without also calling their unions “marriage,” they are inviting the charge of discrimination and setting themselves up to lose the inevitable legal battle to reserve the term “marriage” only for those relationships that conform to the historic understanding of “marriage.”
[2]By employing this analogy, I am in no comparing same-sex couples to apes.  It is an analogy to establish a principle, not a comparison.
[3]This is not my own view.  Personally I think it is unjust to provide two unequally situated parties with identical benefits.  My point is merely that one can support equal rights for same-sex couples, and yet appropriately refuse to call their relationship “marriage” because their relationship fails to satisfy the historic understanding of what constitutes a marital relationship.
[4]J. Budziszewski, “The Illusion of Gay Marriage” Philosophia Christi 7 (2005): 45-52; available from; Internet; accessed 6 February 2013.