Question 1 | Does a right to same-sex marriage mean the redefinition of marriage?

When the approval of same-sex marriage comes up, the victory of equality, etc., the first thing to do is probably to ask a question. As to why you should bother to say anything at all, some reasons are here.


Just start with the ruling and then put your question.

Held: The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

— Question: Does this change the definition of marriage?

Exceptionally cagey people might fend off your question, thinking that if you are allowed to ask this question you will ‘skew’ the result, but even to these people you can simply reply,

Part of the problem in this debate is that people don’t hear what the other side is saying. Are you one of those people?
If not, here’s a question that seems quite relevant to me:
If, to quote the Supreme Court decision, “The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” does this change the definition of marriage?


Some people won’t want to answer your question: you ask it and they claim the opportunity to make their own point (back to ‘not hearing what the other side is saying’).

A good example of this showed up in the oral arguments in Obergefell at the Supreme Court in April 2015, from one of the foremost gay-rights advocates:

Mary L. Bonauto: And here we have a whole class of people who are denied the equal right to be able to join in this very extensive government institution that provides protection for families.

Chief Justice Roberts: Well, you say ‘join in the institution.’  The argument on the other side is that they’re seeking to redefine the institution.
Every definition that I looked up, prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as ‘unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife’. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.

Ms. Bonauto: I hope not, Your Honor, because what we’re really talking about here is a class of people who are, by State laws, excluded from being able to participate in this institution. And if Your Honor’s question is about does this really draw a sexual orientation line….

Chief Justice Roberts: No. My question is you’re not seeking to join the institution, you’re seeking to change what the institution is. The fundamental core of the institution is the opposite-sex relationship and you want to introduce into it a same-sex relationship.

Ms. Bonauto says that she hopes “that core definition” of marriage as “unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife” will not be changed. And that is the standard answer supporters of same-sex marriage will usually give. (Why?)

Whatever the reason, if you get an answer it will usually be this one.

Does this change the definition of marriage? NO. Allowing committed gay and lesbian couples to get married does not change the meaning of marriage.

That is from Freedom to Marry, an organization that was a significant force in the same-sex marriage campaign. Founded in 2003 by Evan Wolfson, a lawyer who has been arguing the case for same-sex marriage since the 1980s, Wolfson’s organization considered it important to ask this very question itself. (Why?)


Pretty simple so far; the next thing to do is to ask a second question:

Question: What is  the definition of marriage, would you say, the definition that won’t change?

What everyone who answers ‘No’ to that first question believes is that

1 |  marriage traditionally means something  (which won’t change now) and

2 |  same-sex marriages have that quality that defines marriage – which is why this is an issue of equality.  (Why would you treat two groups that do the same thing in two different ways?)

To this question you will get a couple of different answers.

Answer 1: Marriage is a form of social status

Some people will answer that their reason for pursuing marital status was to give a same-sex relationship equal standing in the eyes of the law and society to that of married couples.

We wanted to be respected. We wanted to be recognized as a couple.

A successful verdict on marriage equality would be great. It would be validation of our family.

There might be  in that wish (it is hard to say) a sense that that is what marriage is, that is what the very category of ‘marriage’ is for:

Marriage, n.  A form of social status invented to validate or accord recognition to a sexual union or a family unit.

But that is not the traditional definition of marriage.  And it is not hard to support this claim. You can simply add,

You are right  that relationships that passed the test of being a marriage (the way an apple is called an apple because it passes the test of what it takes to be an apple,  while it fails the orange test) – relationships that passed the marriage test were, indeed, accorded that kind of social respect.  But respectability – providing respect or validating unions – was not the purpose of marriage. Marriage is a kind of relationship accorded respect for what it is, on account of what defines a marriage.

To this too some might object (but this objection is easily answered):

— But some marriages happen so as to confer status.  Two young people in some town are caught fooling around and are made to legitimate their relationship – get married –  or break it off!

— Sure. They are told, turn this uncommitted loving, pleasure-having, or whatever it is into something, into a marriage  (by the established definition of a marriage) and then we will recognize your relationship. Then you will be doing something that merits recognition.

When marriages began to happen as something distinct from other relationships they were respected for what distinguished them, respected as the right way for a man and a woman to come together physically (versus uncommitted young men having relations with daughters, husbands having mistresses, etc.). Marriage wasn’t valued for giving status to some relationships and denying it to others: it was valued for what it was.

So to this first definition the right response is, No.

To afford social status was never the basis of the definition of marriage or the purpose marriage was thought to have (or was valued for having) all through history.  Marriage is a form of social status only secondarily, as a function of the value of the marital relationship.

It is what that marital relationship was  that is the definition of marriage. And it is quite right that every relationship that has the defining features of the marital relationship deserves to be called one.

(Or maybe you can just answer, Yes: marriage is a form of social status, but only secondarily, on account of what it is essentially – and what is that?)

Answer 2: Marriage is committed love

Since the question isn’t answered, it still deserves an answer. What is marriage?

The answer given by Freedom to Marry was:

Love + Commitment = Marriage.

The answer given by Mr. Wolfson was:

Legally and in reality, marriage is best understood as a relationship of emotional and financial interdependence between two people who make a public commitment.

The answer given by Ms. Bonauto was:

intimate and committed relationships [that] provide mutual support.

So it is pretty clear that we have a definition something like this.

Marriage, n.  The union of people – there is no limitation in these definitions on who these people could be, so the relevant implication is: – (of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other with the deepest kind of love.

Is this the original definition of marriage, which the new ruling leaves unchanged? No.

This definition and all of its variants leave open how many people could marry, or the pairing of man and woman, and the fact is that in our laws these two things were never in doubt.  The definition of marriage was always more specific than this.


Answer 3: Marriage is defined as the conditions for creating family (in its core meaning)

On what was the definition of marriage always based?

Marriage, n.  The union of a man and a woman who commit to loving and caring for each other in such a way as naturally bears the fruit of new members of society, cared for in a permanent family.

Without families there would be no new citizens: there would be no existing citizens: there would be no non-traditional families: no children to adopt, no single moms. There are many definitions of family but there is a core definition of family that cannot be dethroned as core by all the varieties of family we now have: the creation of new people by the union of one man and one woman. 

Everyone alive comes from unions between one man and one woman (with the exception only of comparatively rare cases of donor fertilization, surrogacy, etc.): marriage is that form of male-female relationship  that for millennia has seemed best for the creation of families.

For the care not just of children but of people in need at the end of life too. That those who brought you into the world should care for you, and that those who did so – cared for you when you needed care – should be looked after by you: all of this was thought normal and just.

So it is no coincidence that that biological formula of ‘one man and one woman’ found its way into all those definitions in that stack of dictionaries running back through our history.

Sometimes people get incensed at any mention of the dictionary.

The whole ‘traditional definition of marriage’  canard is one that just drives me around the bend, I swear.

But this is not a problem: we can deal with this fellow later. We are talking here with all those people who would never get upset  when you talk about the dictionary definition because they have reassured you that that is the definition we are not changing.

A person may ask you,

— Well how did people past the age of fertility  get in on marriage if this is what marriage is?

That’s a question that deserves an answer, but so does the question we have already asked – first question first:


Does this ruling change the definition of marriage? Yes.

There are definitions of marriage that fit same-sex relationships. They are simply new  definitions.


One last thing to ask those people who said same-sex marriage would not change the definition:

Why not just say that it does? Why not just argue that the benefits of the new all-inclusive definition  outweigh the benefits of the traditional definition?

Why do we not hear that argument?

Edward Tingley


Question 2 | What is a bigot?

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