When President Barack Obama gave his second inaugural speech Jan. 21, 2013, the part that had me in tears was when he said, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”
There are pivotal moments in my 50+ years as a gay activist and media disrupter that can be recalled as transformative. That was one of them. It was also emotional after seeing politicians avoid us, our history and our language for so long.
Words and how they are used can change the world. Think of how so many movements were named and symbolized: civil rights, equality, #MeToo, MAGA. And think about the words that describe people and their legacies, such as how hope and change defined the Obama presidency.
The language we use cannot only define us to others, but define how we view ourselves. The battle over our right to marry had two distinct slogans: those opposed to our rights referred to it as “Family Values,” as in same-sex marriage is not a real family, whereas those supportive of our rights chose “Marriage Equality.” And we emphasized that marriage and family were interlinked.
My husband and I run a family business. That term might surprise you since it’s not often associated with LGBTQ+ couples. We wish to make it clear to all that we are a family. Are we a traditional family? Yes, and we are as close to it as any other couple since there is no one blueprint for what is a traditional family.
You often hear “family run business” associated with those who hold up the banner of “family values.” And those who hold that banner are the same people who fight against marriage equality. The reality is that they don’t want LGBTQ+ people to enjoy the benefits of marriage or even be viewed as a family. Their choice of words tells the story. Such people view two husbands as a same-sex couple, not a married couple. They don’t want us to use the word marriage because they don’t believe we are worthy of it. They want to define us by that one word: sex. That’s all we are to them.
Words are important. For decades and still today, the far right has attempted to have us be defined as people only in terms of who we have sex with. The far right does not see us as loving, married couples. They don’t believe we deserve all the benefits and issues associated with being a part of a loving family.
There’s another phrase we all know: a picture says a thousand words. If you look at all the pictures of all the loving LGBTQ+ couples just going about their lives, just being normal traditionally married couples, it’s easy to see that there is no difference between them and the couples the far right wants to claim are the only representation of marriage. The photos make what I believe to be the most compelling of all the phrases: love equals love.
After the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality in 2015, many people thought that would have ended this battle. But in June, when the court ruled to end Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that a case ending marriage equality was now welcomed at the Supreme Court. In order to stave off Thomas’ words, the U.S. Senate is voting to codify marriage equality this week.
There’s one more word that is important to this issue: personal. For me, I’m from a generation where we never thought we’d ever have the right to marry. Many of us often said that marriage was just a piece of paper. I felt that way until the minute I was in front of my husband-to-be and the judge performing the ceremony. As the judge asked me to say my vows, I looked at the man I loved and became too emotional to speak. It has been the only time in my life I’ve been speechless. Marriage is powerful, and it’s a right that we fight to hold onto for our loved ones and our families.
Mark Segal is the founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. He is also an author, activist and one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front.