I have written about my marriage and about words periodically in this blog, and yesterday’s ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage by the Iowa Supreme Court is a good occasion to explore both topics simultaneously. I would like to clarify why re-defining marriage is important for same-sex couples, and specifically why the word “marriage” is more sought-after than something else like “civil union.” It is a worthwhile exercise, and you don’t have to be pro-gay-marriage or anti-gay-marriage in order to think through these issues.

If you haven’t read it, you should take a look at the text of the Iowa court decision, and I think they’ve done a remarkably thorough job (and pretty succinct if you skip legal notes and precedents). I have also posted a guide to reading the ruling, if you’d like some help.

What follows is just a linguistic experiment. I haven’t interviewed all my lesbian and gay friends who are in relationships or who have children, and so this think-piece is just my opinion. Let’s look at same-sex marriage and the reasons for it, for starters. It sees to me that there are two, sometimes distinct, and sometimes overlapping, reasons we need to consider.

The first is the social justice angle, sort of a gay-power angle that argues that any separate-but-equal treatment, while perhaps technically legal, de-legitimizes a group of people and they want legitimacy. The second reason is less visible and certainly more mundane, but very practical reason: that tax, insurance, and other benefits afforded to married couples are being withheld from gay parents and couples, and thus the practice is horribly unfair.

The question about the term “marriage” versus “civilly-recognized union” is tricky on one level and easy on another. I think the Iowa court decision makes it crystal clear that church marriage is a religious affair in which the court has no interest, and Iowa civil marriage is a contract in which the court has total interest. I suppose you could call them two different things, which would satisfy the second reason (above) but not the first. You could call them both “marriage” and understand that they’re two different things. You could call religious marriage “marriage” and label civil marriage something like “civil marriage.” You could call civil marriage “marriage” and give religious marriage its own label, like “religious union,” and you’d have the same thing.

However, language creates a large part of reality, and the “neutral” term for something (like marriage) is anything but neutral, as it’s imbued with history, power, and preference, so that “marriage” becomes the natural, normal, and unassailable terminology, with all alternatives almost invisible within such terminology. But add an adjective to make it “gay marriage” or “civil marriage” and you have automatically pointed out its difference from the norm. By calling attention to the “specialness” of gay- or civil- marriage, those in the “special” institution will always be singled out as being abnormal and somewhat illegitimate.

It must, then, come down to the issue of legitimacy, I think, especially if society is prepared to recognize civil unions (for both gay and straight couples). On the criterion of legal protections, above, the distinction between civil unions and marriage can work, but on the other criterion of recognition and legitimacy, as long as long as “marriage” is the neutral (and blessed) terminology, the legitimacy of civil unions will always be in question, as will the human-ness of those in those unions.

The neutrality of the first criterion breaks down if we consider straight civil unions. I would note that fully half of my straight friends were married in civil ceremonies and bypassed church marriages altogether, and they aren’t required to call themselves anything special, and are given all social and legal benefits of “marriage.” In other words, even though a priest did not marry them, the state married them, and they are called “married.”

Unless our society wants to insist that all these marriages are invalid unless blessed by a priest, or if we want to insist that civil unions may not use the word “marriage” to describe their state of matrimonial bliss, I think it’s demonstrably the case that society already understands that marriages are civil, and that religious blessing is icing on the wedding cake: legitimacy and recognition beyond the state, but under the eyes of a congregation, family, and perhaps God. It’s very special if you belong to a religious organization, and we really might consider using an adjective to denote that specialness, so that while the word “marriage” describes all states of matrimony, “religious union” is a special term reserved for those married couples who have gone the extra step to have their civil union sanctioned by their church.