Facing intense criticism, the Associated Press announced Thursday that it would revise its influential stylebook to include a single standard when referring to gay and straight spouses.
It will add this entry for "husband, wife": "Regardless of sexual orientation, 'husband' or 'wife' is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. 'Spouse' or 'partner' may be used if requested."
A leaked memo had previously revealed that the massive news agency, which sets the standard for many journalists worldwide, was advising its writers to "generally" call legally married gay spouses "partners" instead of "husband" or "wife."
The brouhaha is a lesson in why language matters in debates over gay rights — equal terms are precisely what we've been fighting for.
When confronted, the Associated Press had offered a wholly unsatisfying explanation for its usage distinction. The terms "husband" or "wife," a spokesman said, "may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms.... Generally AP uses 'couples' or 'partners' to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages."
What was AP thinking? Perhaps it reasoned that, because same-sex marriage remains nationally contested, it was acceptable to default to "partners." Yet marriage is almost always governed at the state level, and gay marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.
True, the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, says the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages. But no one seriously thinks that DOMA "unmarries" gay spouses; it simply denies them federal benefits. What's more, the Justice Department, along with numerous legal experts, believe DOMA is unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court may shortly declare it so.
On top of that, AP's explanation indicated that it allowed writers to use "husband" or "wife" if the parties used those terms. But were AP reporters asking straight couples if they "regularly" used the terms? Or were the reporters just deploying those terms without a second thought?
At a minimum, AP's decision not to automatically use "husband" or "wife" for gay spouses in states where same-sex marriage is legal created the perception that it was taking sides — and the losing side — in a culture war issue.
The point is, those who get married have already decided about terminology: They have chosen to become a husband or wife, and that's what they deserve to be called. Failing to recognize this means failing to recognize what the gay-marriage battle has been about: achieving equal dignity by accessing the same institutions, using the same terms as everyone else, sharing fully in American citizenship.
Being "married" is, after all, a collective identity, in the same way "citizen" is. Both terms connote certain responsibilities, obligations and protections, as well as a sense of dignity and belonging for which there is no substitute. They create shared symbolic spaces that confer equality on all those who occupy them. Using such terms fairly matters in the same way the front of the bus mattered to those banned from sitting there for no other reason than to designate them as second-class citizens.
AP's separate standards shouldn't have pleased opponents of same-sex marriage. By suggesting that marriage is defined however each couple says it is, the stylebook undercut the power of the shared cultural definition of marriage — exactly what conservative opponents of same-sex marriage fear. It made marriage into a subjective entity that could lose its power to delineate and help enforce our obligations to one another, a crucial part of its modern purpose.
Marriage used to function to regulate property (which included the women who were getting married), govern procreation and preserve religious and racial lines. But today it is far more about celebrating and enforcing people's commitments to care for one another.
While many still cite procreation as the "reason" for marriage, law and society haven't treated it that way for decades, as evidenced by granting marriage rights to those who don't, can't or won't procreate. The power of the word "husband" or "wife" is that it can help guide people's behavior during moments of weakness. Today, marriage is about personal responsibility, a cause conservatives ought to embrace.
If marriage matters at all, it should remain something that, despite its ever-evolving nature, creates a collective identity with broadly embraced parameters. Yes, many Americans still want it defined to keep out gay couples. But with national polls showing majority support for same-sex marriage, those Americans are losing the debate.
Equally important, the states that have legalized same-sex marriage have made their decision to make the one and only "marriage" — not "civil unions" — available to gay couples. And the individuals who have chosen to marry have made their decision to become husbands or wives.
Now AP has made the right decision to reflect this reality in updating its stylebook.
Nathaniel Frank is a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.