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Citizen's View: Supremes take the 'gay' out of marriage

In the occasional journalism class I teach at Pacific University, some of my students treat adjectives like cheap salt, using them to spice up (and often over-season) their sentences.

I advocate caution: Use adjectives only when they add a defining detail or pertinent characteristic.

Usually, the gender of a professor or the ethnicity of the Mariners’ manager is no more relevant to the students’ stories than the color of the mayor’s tie is to coverage of a city council meeting.

But that wasn’t always the case.

I grew up reading about “women doctors” and “black baseball managers” because back then, those adjectives signified something unusual — and newsworthy. Today, they seem out of place.

Following last month’s historic Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality, we’ve been awash in rainbows and a certain three-letter adjective.

It was included, this time as a plural noun, in a recent message from my friend Byron, who was already making plans to celebrate a special day with his partner of 20 years.

“What a birthday present for Juan!” he Tweeted. “Supreme Court says gays have the right to marry!”

Byron has always had a knack for choosing presents.

When my kids were young, they’d come bounding up the steps of the Willamette Week office, where Byron and I worked, and make a beeline for his cubicle. He’d give them an enthusiastic greeting, ask them about their day and then find some free “swag” sent his way by some PR firm or film studio. Elena still has a scarf he gave her 15 years ago.

At some point, a young Elena asked her parents if Juan and Byron were married. Karen and I explained, as best we could, that they couldn’t get married because they both were men.

That made no sense to a child who had no concept of sexuality — or politics. To my kids, Juan and Byron were just a couple. But at that moment they inherited an adjective. They became a “gay couple.”

A month ago, Juan and Byron were married in a ceremony that found the sweet spot between the personal and the political.

Because Juan and Byron had been at the forefront of Oregon’s fight for marriage equality, there were — appropriately — several references to the fact they are a same-sex couple.

I was thrilled that Elena and Nathaniel, now 20 and 17, were there to hear Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who officiated the ceremony, declare that by the power vested in her by the state of Oregon, Juan and Byron were legally wed.

It was a sentence I didn’t expect to hear in my lifetime, at least not when Elena asked her long-ago question about marriage. Even just seven years ago, when President Obama declared “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” last month’s Supreme Court decision seemed unthinkable.

As many observers have noted, the ruling reflects a surprisingly speedy shift in public opinion, but it is not the end of the struggle for true equality.

Some of the unfinished tasks are practical. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, is leading an effort to update the language of the U.S. tax code, replacing references to “husband and wife” with the phrase “married couple.”

Other fixes will be harder, requiring a change not of words, but of mindsets.

In a way, the ruling helped with that as well.

The highest court in the land said that under our Constitution, same-sex couples need to be treated like straight couples. And so their sexual orientation, at least when it comes to marriage, is now less remarkable. Soon, it will no longer be newsworthy.

I will always remember the celebration with Juan and Byron as the first “gay wedding” I attended. But for my kids, it was simply their first wedding.

Soon after, other gay men and women across the nation got the gift Byron referenced in his Twitter message. Thanks to the Supreme Court, they can become married couples.

No other adjective required.

John Schrag is publisher of the Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune, sister publications of The Review in the Pamplin Media Group.