Language of Reaction

If you live in, around, or have heard of, the United States, you’ve probably had some exposure to the Supreme Court arguments surrounding the legal status of marriage for gay couples. Cast as a civil rights issue, there’s been a huge showing of support on social media for what is coming to be known as “marriage equality.”

Foremost among the symbols of support is a red-shaded “equals sign,” an altered version of the Human Rights Campaign’s blue-and-yellow logo. It’s been all over Facebook for the past few days.

But today, a few new symbols appeared.

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Here’s one – a Photoshopped (or MS Painted) alteration of the original campaign logo. Another:

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This one changes the subject entirely.

At first, I was irked by these logos. Let me be clear why: they are not witty or clever. They are a direct attempt to subvert the meaning of symbolic speech.

When any movement adopts principles and ideals, it almost always adopts symbols of those ideals as well. In the case of the red equality sign, the red-and-pink color scheme represents romantic love, and the equality sign represents the equality of various expressions of that love. The implication is, of course, that all families should be treated equally.

But by taking that symbol and altering it, gay rights opponents are appropriating symbols and confusing signals in an attempt to subvert the efforts of that movement. It’s a classic power play: to keep the status quo, make it harder for advocates of change to express their position. The second logo – the fetus and the equality sign – implies that gay rights supporters are probably also pro-choice advocates, thereby implying that liberals are hypocrites (relying on stereotypes to make that point).

However, I take comfort in the realization that to acknowledge a symbol it to legitimize it. Someone who tries to subvert the symbols of equality must recognize them as holding some power, and to make alterations is to refer back to the original symbolic gesture. Those using the red equality sign to make the opposite point are, at least, spreading awareness of the original, pro-equality sign as well.

It frustrates me when those in power try to meddle in the communicative ability of their opponents. It reminds me too much of the shrinking vocabulary of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984. To lose the ability to express oneself is to be silenced, and it should come as no surprise that marriage equality opponents, so long successful at silencing gay and lesbian experiences, should continue to use the tactics of silence.

But this time, they’ve failed, if only because the symbol of love can shout them down.

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