Are you in an opposite-sex relationship?

by Ryan Streeter on February 7, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Here’s Judge Reinhardt of the 9th circuit, writing for the majority in the court’s overturning of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage:

Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.

I’ve noticed the expression “opposite-sex couples” in quite a bit of the coverage and literature of this and related cases.

Others will provide more astute commentary on the ruling than I can, so I’ll leave that work to them. I merely want to point out this one small-scale item, which I think represents a large-scale shift in our social norms.

As we have the debate about gay marriage in our nation, it’s worth noting how the language we use in the debate has changed. For millennia, marriage was celebrated with eerily similar rites and rituals by societies that never had any exposure to each other. It was (almost always) given a sacred place in the social order, however different those social orders were from one another. ¬†Whether you take an evolutionary view of society or a theological view or a mixture of both, you can’t deny how over the generations our ancestors gave a special classification to men and women marrying and forming families.

Viewed against the broad sweep of history, things have changed in a very short period of time. The traditional view of marriage, woven through the centuries into our cultural fabric, became “heterosexual marriage” not long ago. Now, it appears that the proper legal term for those who choose to participate in this dated cultural institution is “opposite-sex couples.”

The court, along with many commentators, has characterized traditional marriage as the antithesis of a dominant thesis (“same-sex marriage”). Maybe we are all part of a Hegelian cultural experiment in pursuit of a new synthesis. Since language matters in culture, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the nomenclature we are using before we start debating the case in earnest.