There has been a lot of furor and debate recently over the question of gay marriage, and the topic seems poised to become a crucial election-year issue. Respondents to polls about their views on this subject tend to fall into three camps: There are the so-called “extremists” who demand gay marriage, with the same rights, privileges and terminology accorded to homosexual couples as are currently granted heterosexual ones. On the other side of the debate stands a second group of extremists. They not only oppose gay marriage, but are also against any sort of civil union between homosexual couples, even though such a union would allow gay couples to affirm their commitment to each other, take care of each other in times of illness, and would offer them those tax incentives by which our society rewards stable, committed partners. Although this primarily conservative group often trumpets the moral value of commitment and stability in heterosexual couples, it is nonetheless inexplicably against any measure that would encourage such activity in homosexual couples. It either wishes to deny the very existence of homosexuals or worse, act to condemn homosexuality itself. It thereby falls under the rubric of homophobes, despite whatever religious and moral arguments it might muster to the contrary (though I suspect most members would be proud of this very literal definition of their stance).

The majority of Americans, however, including until recently myself, seem to fall in between. We are in support of civil unions that would recognize and encourage long-term stability among gay partners, and that would confer some, if not all, of the legal and economic rights and privileges granted to a heterosexual couple. However, we do not want to call it “marriage” per se. Although we believe that gay people are equal citizens and human beings, there is something about the term “marriage” that we wish to reserve for ourselves. Indeed, most of us, at some time or another, have supported this position against the idea of actual gay “marriage.” We have then stood perplexed before the gay rights “extremists,” who claim that this simply will not do.

However, have we ever reflected on what we are actually saying? If you stop to examine our claim for a second, you realize that there is an apparent contradiction — at least for those who truly believe gay people to be equals. What we are actually asserting is that though we are willing to allow gay people equal civil, legal and economic rights, we are reserving a certain privileged position for heterosexual couples. It is very simple. Heterosexuals are to be privileged over gay people on a semantic level. We will offer gay people something that is terminologically separate, but supposedly equal. Separate but equal.

As Americans, we have seen where this logic has led before. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) first originated the pretense that separate (read: segregated) facilities for blacks and whites do not constitute unequal protection before law, all this in an effort to circumvent the “Equal Protection Clause” inscribed in our constitution. It is this same guarantor of our own freedoms and liberties that we are so willfully dispensing with today. As Americans, we should be particularly attuned to the fact that there is no such thing as “Separate but Equal.” What we are in fact ass erting is that gay people are almost equal; that they are near citizens. Dare we pretend to misrecognize the mistakes of the past so clearly revived in our present-day discourse?

Just recently the judges of the Massachusetts Supreme Court logically concluded that “the dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.” This brave decision has surely set the stage for a series of increasingly frenzied pitched battles. We can only pray that the other judges of our nation will demonstrate the lucidity of thought and moral fortitude to ensure the “equal protection” of our citizens. We can only hope that reactionary elements and linguistic camouflage will not prevail.

What we committed citizens should now be affirming is that until there is semantic equality, there is no true equality. We cannot pretend that gay people are equal and yet offer them something less than true equality. If we, as Americans, actually believe in equality between individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, sex and sexual orientation, and if we hold dear to our hearts the protections and liberties guaranteed by our constitution, then we must, as Americans, support semantic equality as well as legal and civil equality. “Separate but Equal” will never be Equal. The Separation it entails will never be innocuous. This clause strikes at the very heart of our freedoms. We cannot once again inscribe prejudice into our laws and trumpet base hypocrisy as moral truth. The lessons of the past are too clear in our minds.

Spencer Wolff is a first-year graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department.