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On Our Radar – Hack Marriage – Changing The Definition Of Marriage One Dictionary At A Time

by Jean Ann Esselink on July 21, 2013

in Actions,Jean Ann Esselink,News,On Our Radar

Post image for On Our Radar – Hack Marriage – Changing The Definition Of Marriage One Dictionary At A Time

Hack Marriage has begun a campaign to paste over the definition of marriage as “a union of a man and woman” with a sticker that says “a union of two people” in dictionaries for sale in bookstores. Today, their methods and their message are On Our Radar.

I was recently invited to join a “secret” Facebook group of women who want to take action on their political concerns. I truly like the woman who sent the invitation, and I agree with the group’s politics, but I really don’t understand the reason we need to be a secret group. What are we going to do that we don’t want our names  associated with? My friend explained that we were secret so that we could have the advantage of numbers, without fear of reprisals. I joined the group, but have never posted there. I don’t like the idea of having a political agenda I won’t stand behind proudly, consequences be damned. It’s a little bit like hiding in the political closet. Secrecy just doesn’t wear well.

This week on Hardball with Chris Matthews, he asked his viewers to go to his Facebook page and vote on whether they approved or disapproved of the campaign being waged by a San Francisco based group called Hack Marriage. The members go into bookstores, find a dictionary, and paste over the outdated definition of “marriage” as being the “union of a man and a woman”, with an adhesive tag that updates the word “marriage” to mean “the union of two people.” When Chris first explained it, I thought it was a fantastic public education campaign/victory lap. The publicity the pranksters received would make sure the subject of our recent marriage equality advances stayed in the public dialogue.

How many years have we endured the right-wing’s “marriage is between one man and one woman” talking point? We all know the “one” was just a below-the-belt jab meant to subliminally equate same-sex marriage with plural marriage. And we all know what always came next, trash talk about sleeping with dogs or monkeys. Cynic that I am, it always amazed me Republican word whisperer Frank Luntz never thought to advise homophobic conservatives to say “one human male and one human female.” Marriage equality proponents who have had to smile and take it for all these years have some payback coming. So my first reaction to the dictionary updating was one of amusement. Go Hack Marriage. DOMA is dead. Take a well-deserved a victory lap.

At first blush, the Hack Marriage campaign had a Robin Hood feel to it. Yes, I understood they were defacing books, but it’s a minor defacement for a good cause, right? A tiny sticker, carefully placed didn’t do any real harm. The book could still be sold, and now it was up to date. It wasn’t as if they were tearing out the marriage page or scribbling “fuck you” in the margin. It made me think about the mural artists who turn gang graffiti into works of art while the neighborhood sleeps. Yes, they are, in a legal context, defacing the building the very same way the tagger did, but one is meant to destroy, and the other is meant to redeem.

I wanted the people who doctored the dictionaries to be like those midnight artists, or like Henry Doctor in Washington DC, the man they call the guerrilla gardener. Henry planted over 1000 morning glories to beautify Dupont Circle and the entrance to Dupont Station this spring. For his trouble, the Washington Transit Authority threatened to have him arrested if he tried to water them to keep them alive.

Henry Doctor made me want to grab my watering can and help save his illegal flowers. I  was expecting the Hack Marriage video to make me want to learn how to print sticky tags and go out in search of dictionaries. But when I watched the video, I had the totally opposite reaction. The dictionary doctorers who taped themselves didn’t seem like the artists who redeem the gang graffiti with their vision of something better. They felt more like the original taggers.

Watch the video for yourself and see if it hits you the same way.


Maybe the reason I was disappointed is as simple as the men who applied the stickers did it so carelessly; slanted, wrinkled, the end product didn’t seem to be a concern. I had expected that changing the definition of “marriage” would be done lovingly. Pridefully. Reverently. I wanted the act to be a “hallelujah”. A celebration. A symbol of a long hard battle, finally won, but for me, the execution made it feel like that “fuck you” in the margins.

The videos from the marriage sticker protesters made me feel like the prank is more about breaching store security than celebrating a the message that “one man, one woman” marriage is no more. There wasn’t any feeling of relief, or gratitude, or victory that DOMA has fallen that came through to me. Just the opposite, all the sticker bandits had an aura of shame about them. It felt like that secret Facebook group, making statements they weren’t brave enough sign their names to.

Last I checked, Chris Matthew’s poll was divided evenly between people who think Hack Marriage is executing an amusing prank and people who think it’s damaging property. I didn’t vote. There is a “not sure” choice, but that doesn’t seem to fit either. I liked the message, but didn’t like the execution.

I don’t imagine we will arrive at any consensus, but I am interested in your thoughts. Today, changing the definition of marriage, is On Our Radar.

Logo is from Hack Marriage

tncrmJean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.

Follow me on Twitter as @Uncucumbered or friend me on Facebook.

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{ 3 comments }

BJLincoln July 21, 2013 at 11:10 am

I saw the same thing! He took the time to line the sticker up but left out lovingly pressing it into place. One had a wrinkle in it.
It is a cool idea but is defacement of new and public property. It will change. Every year new dictionaries are printed with changes so I have hope.
I'm sure the internet dictionaries have been hacked/un-hacked many times.

cplantin July 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm

This is unnecessary. The major dictionary publishers have been updating their definitions of "marriage" to include same-sex marriage and you can see examples in the online versions of the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary. They are updating their databases, which means that their published (printed) editions will reflect these changes in the near future. Other dictionaries are likewise updating their definitions. This is preferable because the definitions and supporting data are crafted by professional lexicographers and not by well-meaning amateurs. Of course the activists are making a point, and I appreciate their interest in this, but having the dictionary publishers do it themselves is ultimately more satisfying — and more professional.

Ned_Flaherty July 24, 2013 at 2:11 am

The taggers are sloppy in the ways they apply the labels: oversized, crooked, wrinkled, etcetera.

The labels deface other parts of the printed page that a book owner might really need.

The group is subject to arrest and/or fines for every damaged book that a bookseller discovers, potentially many thousands of dollars.

Each book tagged takes an awful lot of work, which may go unnoticed for years or decades past the time when any of this even matters.

It's kinder and less offensive to simply slip a post card into the marriage page, which (a) is certain to be discovered sooner; and (b) defaces nothing.

It would be nice if all this labor and materials went into some LGBT campaign that gets results faster and without damaging anyone else's (bookseller's, bookbuyer's) property.

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