What do people mean when they refer to 'traditional marriage'? 'It's clear that it's code,' LGBTQ activists say.

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A week following the 2015 US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the US, dozens of couples were married during a mass wedding ceremony on lawn of the Texas Capitol building. (Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
A couple holds hands at a mass wedding ceremony in Texas as week after the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. (Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Same-sex marriage, which has been the law of the land across the U.S. since 2015, is a settled matter to most Americans71% of whom, in an all-time high this year, support it. But it still leaves plenty who are not so sure.

That explains the intersection of two headline-grabbing events on the subject this week: one, the Senate, including 12 Republicans, advancing the landmark Respect for Marriage Act, which will provide federal protections for same-sex marriage with full passage and presidential signature (as it's on track to get).

And, two, just a couple of days earlier, actress Candace Cameron Bure telling the Wall Street Journal about her decision to go from the Hallmark Channel — which will soon present its first gay-themed Christmas movie — to the Christian-forward Great American Family. That channel, she said, would not feature same-sex couples in its holiday movies, noting, “I think that Great American Family will keep traditional marriage at the core.”

Bure's comment triggered LGBTQ Twitter, prompted criticism from various celebs and put the “devoted Christian” on the defensive, as she issued a lengthy statement that called the growing chorus of criticism an attempt to “assassinate” her “character.”

But the phrase “traditional marriage” is a dog whistle to the many queer activists, individuals and allies who have been down this road before.

Candace Cameron Bure, pictured in 2020. (Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)
Candace Cameron Bure, pictured in 2020. (Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images) (Paul Archuleta via Getty Images)

“It’s clear that it’s code — and it’s not even subtle code at this point, because I think more and more people understand that marriage, as a concept, has (a) been around for thousands of years, and (b) not always looked the way she thinks it looked,” National LGBTQ Task Force spokesperson Cathy Renna tells Yahoo Life.

“So, using that kind of euphemism, or code, is meant to marginalize,” she says. “It’s meant to set apart some marriages to say they are more real than others, that they are better than others, that they are more authentic. And it’s the kind of exclusionary language we’re seeing all the time.”

Over at GLAAD, president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis noted in a statement: “It's irresponsible and hurtful for Candace Cameron Bure to use tradition as a guise for exclusion. I’d love to have a conversation with Bure about my wife, our kids, and our family’s traditions. Bure is out of sync with a growing majority of people of faith, including LGBTQ people of faith, who know that LGBTQ couples and families are deserving of love and visibility.”

What is 'traditional marriage' anyway?

The phrase doesn’t mean much, says Evan Wolfson, the activist and attorney who spearheaded the same-sex marriage movement as founder of the now-defunct Freedom to Marry, as documented in the 2017 film The Freedom to Marry.

“The predominant tradition of marriage, throughout history, is change. Marriage has almost always existed in society in some form or another, but those forms have been wildly different and have changed constantly,” Wolfson tells Yahoo Life. “Even in the lifetime of most Americans, we’ve seen four major changes,” he notes, referring to changing laws around married couples being permitted to use contraception, couples being able to marry interracially, a woman becoming of equal status to her husband instead of his property and, of course, marriage equality for same-sex couples.

“Again and again, in lifetimes and in history, the idea of what a traditional marriage has been is obscuring the point that marriage has changed, and that it ultimately depends, in our day, on the love and commitment of the couple, hopefully affirmed by the law and friends and family and society,” Wolfson says.

“So, if [Bure] wants to go to a network that’s showcasing ‘traditional marriage,’ is that the marriage of King Solomon and his thousand wives?” he asks. “Is it the marriages in which husbands had complete control over the household, including wives and children and slaves?”

Plenty of Twitter users offered similar sentiments about the use of the phrase, calling it “anti-Christian,” hypocritical and a “modern pseudo-historical fetish.”

Wolfson notes that while the phrase “traditional marriage” is certainly “being wielded as a weapon by some,” it’s not always possible to know exactly how it’s meant. “A charitable view would be that it’s their way of saying, ‘I wasn’t used to this before, and I have a nostalgic or ideological or instinctive comfort with what I used to think the world was like.’ And I do believe some people are there.”

But, he adds, “the less charitable view,” which fits “some demagoguing politicians and some religious voices … is that they want to be exclusionary, and they don’t want to acknowledge the common humanity of same-sex couples and their loved ones.” These folks, says Wolfson, tend to use “Christianity” or “nationalism” as “excuses for unkindness and for discrimination.”

Notions of “traditional marriage,” say experts, are a farce at this point. (Illustration by Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Life)
Notions of “traditional marriage,” say experts, are a farce at this point. (Illustration by Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Life)

Regarding how long the term has been around, Wolfson says, “My guess would be it’s a term that has been used often, even 100 years ago, where parents would’ve said, ‘It’s not your job to fall in love. We will find you the match.’” In the modern-day road to marriage equality, it’s been thrown around frequently, especially around the era of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman — and when forces like Focus on the Family sought to “defend traditional marriage,” the now-defunct Alliance for Traditional Marriage declared homosexuality “unhealthy, abnormal behavior” and some legal scholars wrote about defending so-called traditional marriage in journals.

How legislation could cement marriage equality as tradition

Passage of the new Respect for Marriage Act’s passage would repeal DOMA once and for all. On Wednesday, a filibuster-proof majority of the U.S. Senate voted to move the bill to the Senate floor, where it must win passage before returning to the House (which already passed a similar bill with strong bipartisan support) to be cleared through a concurrence vote and then signed by President Biden. It would recognize marriage between two people regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

“I’m very proud that the Senate cast such a strong bipartisan vote,” Wolfson says. “I think this bill is an important step toward providing protections, and for saying, ‘We’re sorry for the wrong turn we took with the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and resistance to allowing gay people to marry.”

In a statement, the LGBTQ Task Force said the importance of the Senate vote “cannot be overstated — it is in some part proactive defensive legislation of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court’s clear threats against marriage for same-sex couples,” adding that it would “protect millions of same-sex and interracial couples by ensuring their marriages be respected by federal and state governments.”

Says Renna, “At the end of the day, it’s about people understanding the diversity, and the diverse ways we create families. … It’s about family and love.” And the way many of those touting “traditional marriage” were convinced, she says, was by showing, through personal experiences — as with Edie Windsor and Jim Obergefell, whose cases led to marriage-equality rulings by the Supreme Court — the “powerful, horrible example of what happened when you didn’t have access to your constitutional rights.”

Now, she adds, “We can live in a culture where all of our marriages are going to be valued for what they are. Because there’s really no such thing as a ‘traditional marriage’ anymore — our culture has changed, and we are an increasingly diverse population of people. … And we were prior, but now it’s something that is recognized.”

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