WASHINGTON - A challenge for you: Define marriage. We will pause while you unburden yourself of jokes about toilet seats, balls and chains, and pants that make butts look fat.
Traditionally, our culture has defined marriage in two ways: (1) a state-sanctioned union conferring certain legal benefits and obligations upon the partners, and (2) a relationship consecrated before God. While the second definition is at least as important as the first to those of us who believe in God, it's not the determinant one. If it were, we could not regard an agnostic or atheist couple as truly married.
No, marriage has two distinct components: civil and religious. If we really understood that, I wonder if we'd still spend so much time arguing about "gay marriage."
The wondering is occasioned - renewed, actually - by an e-mail I received from a reader named Emily. While expressing her opposition to gay marriage, she said something telling. Namely, that she "would be entirely in favor of a law establishing some sort of domestic partnership" that allowed gay men and lesbians the "financial and personal benefits" of marriage.
Of course, if you accept that marriage is, as a civil matter, little more than a series of "financial and personal benefits," you have to wonder: What's the difference?
I submit that there is none. Yet Emily's reasoning is not uncommon.
It's worth noting that two years ago, before the Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law and cultural conservatives cranked up the fear machine to make "Adam and Steve" the biggest threat to American life since 9/11, nearly half of us supported so-called gay marriage. When Gallup polled the issue last year, that number had tumbled to 24 percent, with 54 percent opposed. (The remainder had no opinion.)
But here's the interesting part: When the phrase "civil union" was used in place of the word "marriage," support climbed by 10 percentage points and opposition dropped by 12. Which suggests that a lot of people are drawing the same distinction Emily does, artificial as it is, and riven as it is with fear of gay relationships being equivalent to straight ones.
But you know what? Go with it. If this is to some degree an argument over semantics, then change the semantics. Were I a gay activist, I would forget I ever knew the phrase "gay marriage." I would say "civil union" till my tongue fell out.
Yes, it can be argued that embracing separate but unequal terminology demeans gay relationships, makes them second-class. But it can also be argued that it is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that a marriage is ultimately defined not by a politician or preacher anyway, but by the two people who are in it.
After all, sometimes the difference between support and opposition lies in how you frame an issue.
Consider that supporters of a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy used to bristle at being called "pro-abortion." They asked to be described as "pro-choice," a term they felt was more accurate and, not incidentally, less negative. Similarly, those who opposed pregnancy termination rejected the term "anti-abortion" because "anti" anything sounds foreboding. They preferred the much friendlier "pro-life."
At the risk of putting too fine a point on this, note that their positions didn't change; only the terminology did.
Those who feel that gay couples deserve the benefits and obligations - inheritability, enhanced tax status and medical insurance among them - that heterosexuals take for granted would do well to emulate that example.
Gay men and lesbians face many obstacles in winning legal recognition of their relationships. Any that can be readily removed from the table ought to be.
I'm reminded of something Gloria Estefan once sang: Sometimes, the words get in the way.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.