I talk about gay marriage a lot because I believe that it has interesting features and consequences beyond those commonly subject to discussion. For example, in my Law Review article, "Same-Sex Marriage and the Federal Spousal Privileges," I argue that variations in state laws dealing with gay marriage create a situation where federal courts may be faced with a novel choice-of-law question: To which state's laws should a federal criminal court look to determine the validity of a marriage for purposes of applying the spousal testimonial and communications privileges to same-sex marriages under Federal Rule of Evidence 501. (That article was finished in April, 2009, and has not been updated since. I may update it soon and share it here if I cannot find a print publication interested in carrying it.)
(I am not opposed to same-sex marriage on principle, but my position is much more complicated than can be expressed by a simple answer to a "are you for it or against it" question. I will fully describe my, so far as I can tell, unique position on same-sex marriage in another post.)
Recently, another issue has caught my attention. This one is not a legal issue, but a conceptual one. I have always found myself a bit nonplussed whenever I hear someone mention his husband, or her wife. Despite the fact that I know that the speaker is gay and may even actually have gone to the trouble of going somewhere to get legally married (same-sex marriage is not legal or recognized in Key Midwestern Swing State), it still strikes me as odd that a man should use the term "husband" to refer to his spouse, or a woman can be married to a "wife." The reaction I have is one that, could it be summed up in a phrase would be "but he's not really your husband, even though you two are married." In other words, I feel like the speaker is or ought to be raising his hands above his shoulders to the level of his ears and repeatedly curling the middle and index fingers of both hands in a downward motion while saying the word "husband" or "wife".
There's a video on YouTube for everything:
This mental response of "there's something not quite right about that usage" is subtle, but consistent, which makes me think it is not inconsequential and deserves investigation. There are two possibilities: either I subconsciously do not accept a man in a same-sex marriage as a proper unit of the concept "husband"; or such a person is not properly a unit of the concept.
The simple definition of "husband" is "a married man". And if definitions were interchangeable with concepts the matter would be closed. But the concept actually subsumes all the fundamental properties shared by its units. So the question is: is having a wife part of being a "husband"? Is being possessed by her husband part of being a "wife"? Other conceptual evidence suggests that it is. A gender neutral concept for a married person exists: "spouse". It doesn't carry all the fine points of the masculine-feminine relationship and so is a broader concept than "husband" or "wife".
Here's where Rand's Razor comes in. It directs to conceptualize only to the point necessary, then stop. Further groupings should be identified descriptively. Leonard Peikoff, "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy" in
Additionally, I am reminded of Hank Rearden's walk home with the bracelet in Atlas Shrugged -- the bracelet which he intended for his wife, but not the woman to whom he was married. These concepts "husband" and "wife" carry with them a great deal of other very significant features that deal with the interplay of the masculine with the feminine. These features are, both in my experience and, I believe, as a matter of principle, fundamentally different in and, in some instances absent from, same-sex relationships. In short, these concepts do not apply merely because a unit to which they are applied meets the definition. Men and women in same-sex marriages do not seem to belong in the concepts "husband" and "wife" because same-sex marriages have very different relationships and interpersonal dynamics than opposite-sex marriages. There is certainly a masculinity-femininity dynamic at work in same-sex relationships, but it is very different from the masculinity-femininity dynamic that is part of the heterosexual marriage.
I see a few possible conclusions:
Expand the concepts "husband" and "wife" by dropping those concepts' current references to the gender of the unit's spouse and the heterosexual masculinity-femininity dynamic, effectively rendering them fully equivalent to the phrases "male spouse" and "female spouse", even though Rand's Razor would then dictate abandoning the concepts "husband" and "wife" altogether in both gay or straight relationships in favor of the descriptive identifications within the master concept "spouse";
Assume that "husband" and "wife" did not include the gender of the unit's spouse and the heterosexual masculinity-femininity dynamic as an essential and fundamental feature of all units in the concepts in the first place, and then adhere to Rand's Razor and abandon "husband" and "wife" for gay and straight married people and use "spouse" as the concept and identify subsets descriptively, despite the fact that "husband" and "wife" have venerable conceptual pedigrees;
Describe gay married men as "gay husbands" (or some other descriptive variant on the concept "husband"), even though this would be like saying "this is a husband, except that it lacks several essential fundamental features of husbands" and reads to me like a stolen concept;
Develop entirely new concepts for gay spouses, which would need to have a lot more distinguishing features than a simple gender-specification, such as implications about the sexual dynamics involved, in order to justify treating them as concepts in their own rights;
Use the existing concept "spouse", which does not include gender or sexual dynamics, and merely use the descriptive "gay spouse" if further specificity is needed.
If there is in fact a conceptual problem with including men married to other men in the concept "husband", then number 5 is my preferred solution. I would appreciate comments, but only if they deal with the conceptualization issue I am discussing. I do not need comments telling me that I'm a homophobe because I refuse to treat gay marriages as conceptually equal to straight ones. I've already told you that I agree that they should be politically and legally equal, and that's not the issue I'm discussing in this post.
Update: 12th April, 2010. There has been some misunderstanding about the purpose of this post. The purpose of this post is to explore the cause of my persistent, nagging negative emotional response to same-sex couples using the words "husband" and "wife", be it subconscious conceptual error or something else. Please review the comments.