In 2004, the Australian Marriage Act of 1961 was amended to read “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. This specification was inserted due to recognition of same-sex unions internationally and the realisation that the Australian Marriage Act as it stood, did not define marriage with regards to sex or gender. As seen in the proposed amendment from then-Greens senator Bob Brown, this change was divisive from the beginning:

It is an issue that refuses to fade from the social and political landscape. As other nations and jurisdictions have enabled non-heterosexual couples to marry, Australians are also asking whether marriage rights should extend to couples which do not consist of a man and a woman. To discuss these ideas, certain terms have been coined: same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, traditional marriage, as well as the scare-quote-laden gay “marriage”.  So it’s possible to explore the issue from a linguistic perspective, examining how and why these different terms are used by certain groups within society.

Anyone who has followed the issue in politics or the media (or, indeed, opened a newspaper in the last 5 years) will know that gay marriage and same-sex marriage are the terms most commonly used in this debate. There is nothing to suggest that when these terms began to be used to legislate for homosexual unions, they had negative connotations attached. But it seems that this is no longer the case for some people. Words attract connotations, and these two terms are now used increasingly by more conservative sections of society, who contrast it with traditional marriage or simply marriage. Use of the latter term in particular establishes heterosexual unions as the unmarked form, and other marriages as marked.

Traditional marriage carries an implication (albeit a false one) that marriage is a timeless institution. It implies that marriage has always had the romantic and familial values that opponents to marriage equality claim to hold so dear. Using this term is an efficient and euphemistic appeal to history, avoiding confronting the inequalities that have been enforced through marriage throughout its history. The term also avoids using that multivalent and sometime-taboo word, sex, and so it can serve to sanitise the debate. Conversely, although the term same-sex marriage can refer to the biological sex of the people involved, due to the other meanings of the word sex, it can be used to bring the issue of intercourse and procreation into the debate. This is where the idea of redefining marriage becomes most heated – conservatives claiming that child-rearing is inherent to marriage, and many others pointing to the the diverse reality of families in contemporary Australia. Never mind the fact that the Marriage Act itself does not actually stipulate that heterosexual marriages must result in the birth of children.

LGBTIQ organisations and their allies tend to use the more inclusive and “tactically brilliant” marriage equality. It is a term that directly addresses what proponents see as the crux of the issue: the inequality of the current Marriage Act and barring of some Australians to marry whomever they choose. It also avoids reference to gender or subjective identity labels such gay or lesbian, which are themselves highly complex. Although widely used in society, some people within the LGBTIQ community do not feel comfortable identifying with such labels for numerous reasons, including the fact that labels can be reductive – reducing a person to their sexuality, rather than acknowledging them as human beings with individual lives, desires, and emotions.  The fact that same-sex marriage conflates gender and sex is another reason progressives sometimes see it as a problematic term.

The wording of the, let’s face it, inevitable change to the Marriage Act will also be important and it is something that our current choice of words may have a role in shaping. By using marriage equality, we are preparing for an inclusive – and bureaucratically simpler – definition to be used in the next iteration of the Marriage Act. When we speak only of same-sex marriage or gay marriage we may inadvertently set our system up to discriminate once again against individuals to whom these labels do not apply. Despite widespread and dominant beliefs about gender in our society, not everybody fits into the male or female categories, and the wording of the legislation should be inclusive of this – as well as consistent with other legislation which acknowledges this diversity.

Languages are expanding to include this in some ways (such as development and use of gender neutral pronouns), and this acceptance should be consistently represented through our discussions and any legislation those may lead to. So next time you’re discussing the issue, consider the terms you use and the ideas that you are communicating as a consequence. They’re a powerful thing.

Elisabeth Griffiths is an ESL and English teacher, gender-neutral pronoun user, and staunch advocate for marriage equality (both the term and the concept).

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