"The Role of the POLITICS IS WAR Conceptual Metaphor in Framing the Debate on Marriage Equality" by Zsófia Szabó
Zsófia Szabó is an American Studies PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary. Email:
My essay focuses on the prominent role the POLITICS IS WAR conceptual metaphor played in the decades-long social, cultural, and political discourse on marriage equality in the United States. I will illustrate the emergence of the metaphor with the help of various primary sources: texts of state and federal legislation; speeches by politicians and religious leaders; and statements by leaders of advocacy groups. In addition, I will rely on examples of how the issue of marriage equality has been discussed in academia and in the media, and how it has been a vital part of the national political discussion as well. Furthermore, I will also analyze how—by heavily relying on this metaphor—politicians, advocacy groups, and the media from both sides of the aisle have used their own frames and have created their own contexts of marriage in order to influence public opinion on the future of marriage rights in the United States. Both sides of the debate have tried to “shape American society’s interpretation of the construct of marriage, define the meaning of marriage, and codify this definition in the law” (Knauff 22). I will argue that, in addition to the POLITICS IS WAR conceptual metaphor, the debate was mostly defined by two seemingly contradictory frames (traditional values vs. equal rights) constructed by opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage.
When it comes to the debate on marriage equality in the United States, there really was not much of a national debate until 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court, quoting the equal protection clause of the state constitution which explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sex, ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional (Hirschman 233-34). Until the mid-1990s, most state marriage laws only spoke about gender-neutral spouses and did not explicitly refer to only different genders being eligible to marry (Knauff 27). Up until the signing of the federal marriage law, the institution of marriage did not have a unified definition; marriage laws varied state by state, while each state was constitutionally obligated to recognize valid marriage certificates issued by each other (Knauff 27). A handful of cases before various courts throughout the United States in the 1970s and 1980s unanimously ruled that same-sex couples could not marry not because of their sex, but because of the definition of marriage (Knauff 28-29). Eventually, a Washington Court of Appeals’ ruling and its clear-cut definition of marriage was adopted word-by-word by legislators drafting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In 1996, when the Hawaii marriage case was about to go to trial again in that state, Republicans in Congress started to draft the law which, one the one hand, would forbid the federal government from recognizing the at that time—not only nationally, but also worldwide—hypothetical same-sex marriages; and, on the other hand, would state that marriage is “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”1 President Clinton signed the law in 1996 and by christening it Defense of Marriage Act Congress declared the institution of marriage under attack and thus put it into a brand new context. DOMA signaled the beginning of the “marriage wars” (Hirschman, 236).
While the media did not pay much attention to the language and rhetoric used in the House and in Congress during the debates prior to the final voting on DOMA, in retrospect it is clear that the (re)framing of the concept of marriage had been started there and then. Each time the House Judiciary Committee referred to same-sex unions in connection with the pending final decision in Hawaii, they used the term “marriage” in quotation marks (Hirschman 235). Moreover, South Carolina congressman Robert Inglis informed the Committee that same-sex marriage would destroy the country by voicing his conviction that the question of marriage equality is a question of moral rights and wrongs:
One of the reasons the Republic has survived as well is that for a long time in this country there was a generally accepted view of what is right and wrong… And folks that you [Pat Schroeder of Colorado, who opposed DOMA] associated with for a long time have attempted to now undo that sort of understanding, and that’s part of what happening here. (qtd. in Hirschman 235)
With DOMA signed into law and going into effect, the concept, institution, and the meaning of the word marriage became highly debated concepts. One the one hand, there was the federal definition of the word, with one man, and one woman forming a union as husband and wife; on the other hand, advocates of marriage equality started their campaign to acknowledge a much broader definition of the concept and to reform state and federal marriage laws accordingly.
2. The Early Rhetoric of Marriage Promotion
Scholars researching the implication of the rhetoric used in the marriage debate have established that “politicians and advocacy groups on both sides of the issue seek first and foremost to define it [marriage] in terms that will be the most attractive to the public” (Rom 21). Already in the 1970s, before debate on marriage equality heated up, marriage needed a clear-cut definition because it urgently needed state-sponsored advocacy: due to high divorce rates and the consequences of the feminist movement, marriage was on the decline (Heath 5-6). Conservative groups, supported by the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations, championed marriage as the institution that is “central to social order”; “the bedrock of civilization”; and the “primary social institution” (Heath 24). As a result, in the 1970s and 1980s—led by such advocacy groups and think tanks as Moral Majority and Focus on the Family; the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council (Heath 6-8)—, the state of marriage became of national importance. It needed state-founded research, education programs, and promotion primarily because its aim, as an important apparatus of the state, was to “produce the right kind of citizenry” (Heath 14). Conservative commentator and former president of the National Organization for Marriage—one of the most influential organizations in the campaign to work against the legalization of same-sex marriage—Maggie Gallagher noted that when it comes to marriage, society “formalizes its definition, and surrounds it with norms and reinforcements, so we can raise boys and girls who aspire to become the kind of men and women who can make successful marriages” (qtd. in Heath 14).
Furthermore, the fact that marriage and family have been portrayed as interchangeable concepts during the campaign to promote marriage also had a huge impact on how the two sides of the debate on marriage equality later framed the concept. Religious conservatives, among them mostly Evangelicals—who were a leading force in the 1970s and 1980s in the marriage promotion movement—, were the first ones championing the idea that “marriage provides the best kind of family” (Heath 24). Prominent religious right leader and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson claimed that “marriage, when it functions as intended, is good for everyone—for men, for women, for children, for the community, for the nation, and for the world” (qtd. in Heath). The conclusion one can draw from looking back a couple of decades is that the race to define marriage and frame its content did not start with the emergence of the idea—and later the reality—of same-sex marriage.
3. Framing the Narrative in the Media
People “think, evaluate, and act” (Kövecses) based on their cognitive frames; they make sense of their experiences based on them as well. In addition, people’s cultural experiences are heavily influenced not only by one set of coherent frames, but individuals are often confronted by various established set of frames, which can shape their own cognitive processes based on which of the preexisting frames they accept as prevailing and eventually internalize as their own. Cultural debates are usually born out of such situations (Kövecses): society is split between those who accept one particular frame for a certain concept— let’s say marriage—and those who pick the other frame, or argue for the need to redefine of the already existing one.
Even before advocacy groups started to frame the social, cultural, and legal connotations associated with the institution of marriage according to their political and social platform, they needed to pick a term for the main issue itself: is the debate about gay marriage, homosexual marriage, same-sex marriage, gender neutral marriage, or is it about marriage equality? These distinctions seem inconsequential at first, but later I will illustrate that they signal the emergence of the two opposing, broader frames (basic rights vs. traditional moral values) applied by proponents and opponents of marriage equality. The public debate has come a long way since 1996, when the idea of same-sex marriage needed quotation marks: in the past 17 years, 12 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it,2 and the language employed to debate the question has forever shifted along with it. In 2005 California Assembly member Mark Leno declared: “It’s not about gay marriage—it’s about marriage equality… [A]re all citizens in this country equal and first class, or are we not? That’s the frame that should be established” (Rom 19).
According to the definition of Snow and Benford, in sociology a frame is “an interpretive schema that simplifies and condenses the ‘world out there’ by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of action within one’s present or past environment” (qtd. in Ghoshal 1). Because, as I have mentioned earlier, advocacy groups’ primary aim is to influence the public—especially since in the majority of the states, the question of marriage equality had been decided on the ballot or is expected to head there—, those simplified and condensed headlines used in the media are crucial. The race to monopolize how marriage between people of the same sex is referred to in the national debate is of utmost importance.
In a 2003 interview, George Lakoff pointed out the connotations of the term “gay marriage”—at that time prevailing term in the media—in contrast with terms and frames used by advocates of marriage equality:
[T]ake gay marriage, which the right has made a rallying topic. Surveys have been done that say Americans are overwhelmingly against gay marriage. Well, the same surveys show that they also overwhelmingly object to discrimination against gays. These seem to be opposite facts, but they’re not. ‘Marriage’ is about sex. When you say ‘gay marriage,’ it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a lot of Americans don’t approve of gay sex, that doesn’t mean they want to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative reaction. But what if you make the issue ‘freedom to marry,’ or even better, ‘the right to marry’? That’s a whole different story. Very few people would say they did not support the right to marry who you choose. But the polls don’t ask that question, because the right wing has framed that issue. (qtd. in Azab Powell)
In support of Lakoff’s claim about the connotations the term “gay” marriage had on the general public’s opinion—those who were neither strong opponents nor advocates of the issue—, Lambada Legal leader Kevin Cathcart suggests that “’gay’ marriage directly confronts heterosexuals with the sexual part of homosexuality” (Hirschman 237). Thus, by insisting on framing the issue by methodically name-dropping “gay” marriage, opponents tried to shift the emphasis from concepts of equality, rights, or even the by them previously established family, to what Cathcart calls the “ick factor” (Hirschman 237); the uncomfortable idea that marriage inevitably means sex. Evan Wolfson, founder of the influential Freedom to Marry advocacy group, further argues that just like a gay lawyer is a lawyer, by defining marriages of same-sex couples as “gay” marriage as opposed to simply marriage, the concept “focuses on the core of what makes them different” (Hirschman 231) and perpetuates the idea of difference and exclusion. His point is an important one because researchers have shown that individuals most of the time “borrow the language of the media to explain their own position regarding the issue of gay rights” (Tadlock et al. 197).
The final conclusion researchers arrived at while analyzing the language and rhetoric used to debate marriage equality is that framing the issue according to the interest groups’ aims and goals is only the first step: “[their] attempts to frame issues in a way that is favorable to their position [are] successful to the extent that they are able to get the media to adopt their frame in reporting on the issue and also getting the public to utilize their frame when thinking about the issue” (Tadlock et al. 196). In addition, “journalists’ use of quotations, sound bites, and other input […] make the media the perfect vehicle for carrying their preferred frames.” (ibid) Thus creating frames—which are sometimes referred to as “linguistic windows” and “constructions of the issue” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 196)—also means providing the media (and thus the public) pre-packaged and hugely simplified evaluations of an issue that are ready to be adopted as personal opinion. In other words, “frames tell people how to weight the often conflicting considerations that enter into everyday political deliberations” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 196). I will further address this issue in the final part of my essay.
“The frames that we employ to understand social events and life in a culture can be either specific or very general ones” (Kövecses). In the national debate on marriage rights two distinctive and very specific value frames have emerged as prevailing ones. The dominant frame of marriage that opponents of marriage equality have relied on involves traditional morality and traditional values; while proponents emphasize equality and rights (Ghoshal 1). In the next part of my essay I will analyze these two rival frames adopted by the two interest groups and trace their development through the years. Moreover, I will also show how, despite being portrayed as contradictory, the two frames have quite a lot in common: namely the fact that “both narrative-format appeals to emotion in order to elicit strong support” (Ghoshal 3).
4. Framing Marriage as a Basic Right
The fact that marriage equality advocates rally behind the equal rights frame is first detectable when we take a look at the names and platforms adopted by some of their most influential interest groups: Human Rights Campaign—“the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans”3—; or Freedom to Marry, which states on its website that “we are pursuing our Roadmap to Victory by working to win the freedom to marry in more states, grow the national majority for marriage, and end federal marriage discrimination.4 Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—the leading national organization advocating individual rights—has also been supporting gay rights, including marriage rights; and Lambada Legal, the nation’s largest legal organization working for the civil rights of gay and lesbians, has also been involved in the national campaign to achieve marriage equality.
The idea that marriage is a basic civil right of every American citizen has not been first introduced by gay rights groups. In Loving v. Virginia—the 1967 Supreme Court case about interracial marriages—the Court had ruled that that:
[t]he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival […] Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. (qtd. in Rom 7-8)
Gay rights advocates heavily “rely on the explicit parallels between racial oppression and homophobia, particularly […] between miscegenation and laws against same-sex marriage” (Stone and Ward 617). However, most marriage equality campaigns throughout the states are careful to use the colorblind frames “basic rights” or “human rights”, rather than “civil rights” while drawing analogies (Stone and Ward 617). In contrast, politicians are less cautious and politically correct. Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, a prominent civil rights era leader, voiced his opposition to DOMA in Congress by stating that:
This bill is a slap in the fact of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay man and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness…Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriages, and I quote, ‘Races do not fall in love. Individuals fall in love and get married.’ I have known racism. I have known bigotry. This bill stinks of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance. It should not be called the Defense of Marriage Act. It should be called the defense of mean-spirited bigots act… (qtd. in Knauff 33)
Consequently, anti-gay marriage groups were quick to jump on the opportunity to try to racialize the issue by preferring to use Black spokespersons in their campaign videos and in their literature (Stone and Ward 613). Many religious right organizations’ messages to the public in the late 1990s included the use of “’civil rights master frames’, such as ‘this is hijacking of the freedom train’” (Stone and Ward 613) and characterized the fight for civil rights of blacks in the 1960s as a fight for “legitimate civil rights” (Stone and Ward 614) as opposed to what they refer to as the fight for “special rights” of homosexuals (Stone and Ward 613). In addition, anti-gay rights advocates, and later anti-gay marriage advocates as well, “argued that gays did not qualify for minority status due to their wealth, power, and lack of discrimination” (Stone and Ward 612). They refused to acknowledge what scholars had concluded decades ago, namely that the gay-rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was the final stage of the minority rights revolution that started with the women’s rights and civil rights movements. Even in the 1990s, religious right literature stated that “the only valid civil rights are determined by race, religion, and nationality” (Stone and Ward 612).
Framing marriage as a basic human right also implies the fact that until marriage equality is achieved, there is going to be no real equality when it comes to the personal relationship of heterosexual and same-sex couples. Knauff points out that “the advocates of same-sex marriage emphasize that their goal is not to create a new institution or a special set of rights and privileges for gay couples, but rather to be included equally with opposite-sex couples in the existing context of civil rights and marriage equality” (32).
The exclusive promotion of the equality frame also signifies that advocacy groups will not be satisfied with civil union and civil partnership laws; they refuse to accept them even in case it would essentially mean “all the rights, but not the label” of marriage (Rom 29). Though studies suggest that those who do not support full marriage equality would be “more sympathetic to extending the benefits of marriage than changing its definition” (Rom 28) to include same-sex couples, in the past couple of years gay rights campaigns have been more and more unanimously in support of total equality—as opposed to partial equality offered by civil unions—and claim that “the inclusion in a recognized cultural institution cannot be mimicked by other status designations” (Figgerhut et al. 233-234).
The most important aspect of the equality frame stressed by gay rights groups is the social, legal, and financial benefits of marriage; according to a federal study, they amount to more that one thousand (Hirschman 236). They argue that marriage is the ultimate legal status validating romantic relationships (Figgerhut et al. 233) and that it is the “portal to a wide array of privileges and protection” (von Drehle). They emphasize financial—both state and federal level—benefits, such as tax breaks, Social Security and health insurance benefits; and legal protections like hospital visitation rights, inheritance and estate rights, and child support responsibilities (Ghoshal 8). Advocates also stress the idea that excluding gay couples from the institution of marriage, which denies them rights and benefits available to straight couples, is discrimination. Marriage Equality USA states on its homepage: “The organization’s sole purpose and focus is to end discrimination in civil marriage so that same-sex couples can enjoy the same legal and societal status as opposite-sex couple” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 199).
5. Framing Marriage as a Traditional Moral Value
The most important element of the moral value frame propagated by opponents of marriage equality is the argument that marriage is the core constituent of traditionally held morals (Tadlock et. al. 201). Furthermore, they also argue that gay marriage cannot be a moral alternative to traditional marriage (Tadlock et al. 199). They often characterize marriage—by evoking religious and biblical language and not willing to distinguish between religious and civil marriages—as being holy and sacred, and thus they claim that their task is to preserve the sanctity of the institution.
When traditional morality is so strongly associated with marriage, it inevitably means that children will be in the focus as well. By shifting the frame of the debate from same-sex adults wishing to marry to the children who may eventually are brought up in these families, opponents of marriage equality reinforce their conviction that the traditional purpose of marriage has always been—and is rightly supposed to be—reproduction and the raising of children in a traditional nuclear family setting. They argue that:
Marriage is a public institution because it brings together men and women for the purpose of reproducing the human race and keeping mother and father together to cooperate in raising to maturity the children they produce. The public interest in such behavior is great… (qtd. in Rom 17)
However, the widespread availability of such reproductive strategies as egg donors, donor sperm, surrogacy, IVF, and other medical and non-medial methods of conception—not to mention such family roles as step-parents, step-children, step-siblings, and adopted children—; in addition to domestic and civil partnerships, cohabitation, divorce, and single parents forever altered the way people think about the mechanics of traditional procreation, family, and the role of adults and children within those family units (von Drehle).
Researchers often connect the ideology behind the traditional moral value frame of marriage with “the unprecedented decline of marriage as the only acceptable arrangement for having sexual relations and for raising children” (Oliver 63). They argue that the race to redefine marriage—either as solely the union of one man and one woman or as the union of two people—is not a redefinition of the institution at all, but rather what has been happening in the past couple of decades should be characterized as an ongoing de-definition (Oliver 63). They claim that because traditional moral values had been exempt from the institution for more than half a century, marriage has already lost all of its essential content and coherence; a clear-cut definition is not possible anymore (Oliver 63) As Walter S. Knauff puts it: “it took a gay [court] case to reveal what marriage is, but this case revealed that marriage, at least as it is legally understood, is nothing but an empty space, delimited only by what it excludes—gay couples” (29).
One of the most significant embodiments of the idea that traditional marriage is morally superior to civil and domestic partnerships, cohabitation, and officially single individuals forming families is that fact that there has been an influx of local and state level financial reward programs—funded by conservative think-tanks and religious right organizations—aiming at promoting and advocating the two-parent, biological, married family model. These programs do not only offer tax-breaks for married couples with children: a program implemented in Washington, D.C. in 2005 for example gives couples earning under $50 000 a year a marriage bonus of up to $9 000 to buy a house, pay for training or education (Heath 8). The message is clear: rewarding those who chose the traditional, morally superior institution of marriage with cash.
By applying the traditional moral value frame while arguing for upholding the traditional definition of marriage advocates also evoke “nostalgia for a time when marriage was the unquestioned norm for organizing family life” (Heath 8). Religious conservatives—the main constituency of the anti same-sex marriage campaign—embrace few core values as readily and as unanimously as the family: religious historian David Watt even claims that along with the second coming of Jesus, family is the main source of hope in a world of sin for evangelical Christians (qtd. in Heath 28). The campaign to promote traditional family values along with traditional marriage reflects their desire to reinvent a mythical American identity; a past with distinctively hierarchical gender and sexual order (Heath 10-12). The executive director of the Oklahoma General Baptist Convention described his longing for a time with more traditional family and marriage values by saying, that :
I think that across American history […], before the rebellion of the ‘60s, it was easier to have [a] kind of unswerving commitment, and historically divorce was much less in those days than it is today. I think we are in a time when everything’s up for grabs; all of the mores and anchors we’ve held on are being questioned today. (qtd. in Heath 28)
As Melanie Heath points out though, those who support the marriage as traditional value frame cling “to a vision of America from the 1950s when Christian morals prevailed among white, middle-class families. For many Americans—provided they were white, middle-class, Christian, and heterosexual—, the decade probably does recall an innocent past” (Heath 31).
6. The Role of the POLITICS IS WAR Conceptual Metaphor in the Debate
As I have already mentioned in the beginning of my essay, it was in 1996 with the signing of the Defense of Marriage Act that the public debate on marriage equality—supported by politicians, the media, and advocacy groups—shifted in earnest, and participants started to apply rhetoric of a battle, of a war, in their campaign for or against same-sex marriage rights. Newspapers, scholarly articles, and other media have been describing the campaign as an ongoing “culture war”, with participants “fighting a battle” over same-sex marriage (Fingehut et al. 226). In addition, key figures in the campaign on both sides—politicians, advocates, and individuals involved in key court cases—have been the leading figures behind the movement to employ highly polarizing rhetoric in order to influence their constituencies and paint their argument as the only valid one.
In this last part of my essay I will illustrate how the Politics (of marriage equality) is War conceptual metaphor infiltrated both sides of the national debate on marriage rights. Lakoff argues (qtd. in Kövecses) that the main conceptual metaphor used in American politics is the POLITICS IS WAR metaphor. I will show that it can also be applied to the politics of the marriage equality campaigns. Kövecses’s deconstructed components of the original POLITICS IS WAR conceptual metaphor (Kövecses) also appear in the recreated Politics (of marriage equality) is War conceptual metaphor. “American society is composed of armies that correspond to political groups” (Kövecses)—or advocacy groups opposing or supporting equal marriage rights. “The leaders of the armies correspond to political leaders” (Kövecses)—or leaders of the campaigns. “The weapons used by the army are the ideas and policies of the political groups” (Kövecses)—or the frames advocated by the two sides of the aisle. “The objective of the war is some political goal” (Kövecses)—or a legal one: legalization or ban of same-sex marriages.
In response to the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that mandated same-sex marriages in that state, on October 15, 2004, the Family Research Council organized a rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC and urged people to gather “to defend […] the traditional definition of marriage” (Campbell and Robinson 131). Tony Perkins, president of the conservative pro-family advocacy group, declared in front of the two hundred thousand people that had attended the rally that “while our troops battle terrorists and tyrants abroad, a parallel battle rages here on our soil for the family and ultimately the future of our nation” (qtd. in Campbell and Robinson 131).
Comparing the ongoing “war on terror” with the battle that needed to be fought back at home had been one of the most often employed rhetorical techniques applied by anti-gay marriage advocates. Tadlock, Gornon, and Popp’s research on the subject found many instances of explicit parallels that had been drawn in order to elicit emotions from those who already felt strongly about the necessity and righteousness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They collected several published quotations from anti-marriage equality spokespersons in newspapers from the mid-2000s which argue, among others, that: same-sex marriage constitutes a “threat to the family structure and a threat to our traditionally held morals” (qtd. in 201); allowing same-sex marriage would “destroy marriage as a functioning social entity in America” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 202); and “[l]osing this battle means losing the idea that children need mothers and fathers…It means losing American civilization” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 202). In addition, they also report that a representative of the Bay Area Citizens for the Protection of Marriage and Family declared that the activities of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—who ordered the issuing of marriage licenses for same-sex couples in the city (Hirschman 301-303)—constituted a “war on marriage” (qtd. in Tadlock et al. 202).
Interestingly, the study itself also applies the same rhetoric while summarizing its findings: “in other words, opposing forces [of marriage equality] are marshalling resources, establishing grassroots lobbying efforts, and hiring personnel in order to affect outcomes” (Tadlock et al. 195). Other academic publications, as well as newspapers that deal with the issue of framing also employ similar rhetoric. While discussing the similarities and differences between “marriage wars” and the religious right’s “culture wars” of the 1990s, Campbell and Robinson’s study concludes that “[a]lthough we would expect to see the greater evidence of the culture war among the generals, the attitudes of the infantry are relevant also. Leaders must have someone to lead and so political and religious elites cannot fall out of step with their constituencies” (135). Moreover, Linda Hirschman’s book on the history of the gay rights movement describes Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson’s early support of the marriage equality campaign by using war imagery as well: “No one would ever accuse Wolfson of carelessness. From the beginning of his crusade to clear the aisles for gay marriage, he had a plan. Wolfson believes it was a battle that had to be fought” (236). Time magazine writer David von Dehle also uses identical language in his article “How Gay Marriage Won” while describing attorney Charles Cooper’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court’s Proposition 8 case5 this March:
The marriage license is the last defensible distinction between the rights of gay and straight couples, Cooper told the Justices as he steeled himself to defend that line. But most generals will tell you that when you’re down to your last trench, you are likely to lose the battle.
Cindie Jeter Yanow’s research on “the newspaper coverage of the issue of gay marriage in key battleground states” (125) during the 2004 presidential elections concludes that one of the reasons media outlets like to emphasize the various war metaphors while quoting sources is due to the fact that journalist are taught that news means conflict. She argues that even though there are some journalism professors that teach that there are sometimes more than two sides of a news story, the majority of university textbooks emphasizes conflict, let it be literal or metaphorical, as news (Jeter Yanow 125).
Still, the media’s insistence on applying various war metaphors while reporting on the marriage debate is only successful as long as politicians or advocates from both sides provide them with applicable material. Stone and Ward note in their study that in a 1993 religious right publication a Black spokesperson declared that “we [African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement] were fighting and some died for equal rights, and not for the choice of someone’s bed partner” (614). In 1996 Jesse Helm, Republican Senator from North Carolina, argued in favor of DOMA by claiming that:
It is precisely the critics of [DOMA] who are demanding that homosexuality be considered as just another lifestyle—these are the people who seek to force their agenda upon the vast majority of Americans who reject the homosexual lifestyle… The Defense of Marriage Act will safeguard the sacred institution of marriage and the family from those who seek to destroy them and who are willing to tear apart America’s moral fabric in the process… Inch by inch, little by little, the homosexual lobby has chipped away at the moral stamina of some of America’s courts and some legislators, in order to create the shaky ground that exists today…” (qtd. in Knauff 33)
Melanie Heath reports in her book that Oklahoma state senator James A. Williamson, author of the bill to ban same-sex marriage in the state, appeared in a video message with his wife and addressed the congregations of more than 6000 churches in Oklahoma where the video was distributed:
I am Senator James Williamson and this is my wife Sandra, and we want to talk to you about an issue that concerns all conservative Christians in Oklahoma. The God-ordained concept of marriage between one man and one woman is under attack in the U.S. and in Oklahoma. […] Homosexual marriage will quickly destroy the traditional family, and will lead to polygamy and other alternatives to one man, one woman unions. (qtd. in Heath 32)
Heath also writes in her book that she attended one of the churches that had shown the video, and the local pastor gave an introduction and she quotes him as he:
Urged his congregation to vote to fight against the ‘terror alert in all our homes. Terrorists are trying to get into your home and break up your family.’ After the video and sermon, the pastor announced Marriage Protection Week, a national week initiated by conservative religious leaders to fight against same-sex marriage. (33)
Furthermore, she describes the ceremony that followed the sermon where the congregation “honored both sets of couples married for ten to twenty-five years and for twenty-five to forty-nine years with bronze medals” (Heath 33). The couples “marched down the aisle to receive [their] medal while the organist played ‘Onward Christian Solider’” (Heath 33). As opposed to the Christian warrior imagery used by opponents of same-sex marriage to represent themselves, Heath concludes in her report of Oklahoma’s campaign against marriage equality that key figures—politicians and religious leaders—portrayed lesbians and gay men as participants of a war as well, but as “‘radical activists’ or ‘family terrorists’ who seek to break down the secure boundaries of marriage” (Heath 179). She further argues that “these descriptions of homosexual ‘radical activists’ draw on racialized images of Muslim terrorists who are viewed as seeking to destroy America” (Heath 179) and thus constitute a “major threat to [the] republic” (Heath 31).
Taddlock, Gordon, and Popp’s study provides us a valuable conclusion if we wish to understand the motives behind the excessive use of the Politics (of marriage equality) is War conceptual metaphor in the debate on marriage equality, as well as the monumental role the media has on supplying the general public with ready-made frames and thus influence their perspective on the issue. Their research shows that “issue framing affects public opinion. […] The value (whether morality of equality) that one attaches to the issue is the single best predictor of support for or opposition to same-sex marriage. The eventual winner […] will be the consistent group that succeeds in having its value choice frame adopted by the mass media” (211). Moreover, because all constituents of the campaigns for or against equal marriage rights—legislators, politicians, religious leaders, and advocacy groups—collectively adopted the language, rhetoric, and the main conceptual metaphor of contemporary American politics; an enduring, highly polarized debate, structured along the two opposing frames, is inevitable.
2 As of June 2013; source: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pages/where-state-laws-stand ↩
5 Proposition 8, officially known as California Marriage Protection Act, is the 2008 California constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages. It is currently challanged at the Supreme Court together with the consituality of the Defense of Marriage Act. ↩
- Azab Powell, Bonnie: Framing the Issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics. 27 October 2003; Web. Accessed at: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff.shtml
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