Definition Essay—Protected Class

Before you begin to write your own, you’ll want to review the essential qualities of a good Definition Essay.

1. It’s an argument.
I’ve told you before that all writing is argument, but now is always a good time to remind you. Our intuition might tell us that a Definition Essay is a simple stating of the facts of what a thing is or isn’t. But if that were true, we’d hardly need lawyers at all. Whole libraries have been filled with arguments about whether a particular judicial process is or is not an example of “due process” or “equal protection under the law.” Those categories sound clear enough, but deciding whether individual cases qualify as members of the class is always up for debate.

2. It has real-world relevance.
The dictionary is almost useless in defining what words and concepts mean in society. Because the model essay below is about gay marriage, I looked up the definition of marriage in a 1993 dictionary and found it quite helpless. In several entries, it sometimes refers to unions of husband and wife; sometimes to a special social and legal relationship between men and women for the foundation of a family; sometimes merely to an intimate or close union.

None of these will help us legislate whether same gender marriages should be permitted because, as a society, we get to decide what constitutes a “special social and legal relationship” and who can make one, just as we get to decide what constitutes “the foundation of a family.” After all, we don’t take away the marriage licenses of couples who don’t procreate, even by choice.

3. It often requires defining several terms.
In the above, we need to clarify not just marriage, but social relationship, legal relationship, and family. In the model below, our quest to define the rights of gays seeking to marry sends us in search of good definitions for

  • protected class,
  • insular minorities,
  • laws based on gender,
  • laws based on sex,
  • invidious discrimination,
  • defining characteristics,
  • political vulnerability, and
  • fundamental nature.

After all that, the model below still doesn’t define marriage, let alone gay marriage. It doesn’t try to. It doesn’t say gay marriage should be embraced. It doesn’t say gays are entitled to all the privileges and considerations of marriage. Its narrower argument is that, whatever gay marriage is, gays belong to a class of citizens entitled to special consideration to determine whether depriving them of the right to marry is unconstitutional.

And that’s a worthwhile definition essay!

In red below are the specific claims relevant to a definition of a protected class that deserves heightened scrutiny and the argument that gays seeking to marry belong to that class.

New York Times Editorial
March 23, 2013

Heightened Scrutiny

One of the central questions in the two gay marriage cases to be argued before the Supreme Court this week is whether gays and lesbians are a protected class under the Constitution. Under longstanding principles, government actions that fall heavily on “discrete and insular minorities” historically subject to prejudice and stigma are to be given particular scrutiny.

The 3.4 percent of Americans who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clearly qualify as this kind of minority. Laws classifying individuals based on sexual orientation — the anti-gay-marriage initiative in California called Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act — must be given heightened scrutiny.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then the foremost advocate for gender equality, swayed the court 40 years ago to adopt that standard for gender-based distinctions. The court concludedthat classifications based upon sex” were “inherently suspect.” But it has not yet decided how to treat laws based on sexual orientation. The solicitor general and others argue persuasively that such laws require close review just as those based on gender do.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the Defense of Marriage Act for defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The appeals court convincingly found that in focusing on sexual orientation, the act warranted heightened scrutiny under the test the Supreme Court established for gender-based laws — and that the statute was unconstitutional when reviewed closely. The test considers whether members of the group have experienced invidious discrimination; whether individuals can leave the group without losing a basic part of their identities; whether the group’s defining characteristic is relevant to its ability to contribute to society; and whether members can protect themselves in the political process.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people share a common “immutable” characteristic because their sexual orientation is fundamental to who they are and they have indisputably been discriminated against. Until a decade ago, the Supreme Court upheld state laws making “private sexual conduct” between people of the same sex a crime. In the five most recent years for which the government has data, through 2011, hate crimes in the United States fell by 19 percent. But hate crimes based on sexual orientation went up by 3 percent. The discrimination has nothing to do with the ability to contribute to society.

Finally, gays and lesbians, as a minority group, cannot protect themselves from discrimination in a political process governed by the majority. If they had power, Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act would never have passed, nor would the laws currently on the books in 39 states that specifically restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

As the brief for the United States said in the Defense of Marriage Act case, “This is the rare circumstance in which a faithful application of the court’s established criteria compels applying heightened scrutiny to an additional classification.” Neither of the laws in the two cases before the court can withstand this serious constitutional examination.

In-Class Task

In a Reply to this post, explain in what way(s) this essay differs from what you thought a Definition/Categorical essay would look like. Then describe one strategy of a D/C essay you might try in your own paper.

21 Responses to Definition Essay—Protected Class

  1. cardinal7218 says:

    This is different from what I thought a definition essay would look like because it doesn’t define a term that seems central to the essay (like “marriage”), but defines a group and argues that the topic fits into that group. A strategy I might use is defining essential terms that surround my main topic to make sure my argument is specific.

  2. clementine102 says:

    I thought this definition/categorial essay would be a piece that explains what gay marriage is and where they fall under the law. Instead, this essay defines several different topics related to gay marriage but over all creates an argument and justifies their main argument without really addressing it. I also didn’t think definition essays did not include a lot of claims but in this gay marriage essay, there is a lot of them. One strategy of a D/C essay that I will be using is that I will be defining several terms relating to my main argument before I start writing so I get a better idea of what I want to write.

  3. runnerd4 says:

    This essay is actually pretty similar to what I thought it would look like. From your previous descriptions and your statement that every work is an argument, this is pretty much what I imagined. One strategy of a D/C paper that I will definitely use the real world relevance in it. It is hard to establish what I am talking about and my point without using real world relevance. I will also use the “bobblehead strategy”.

  4. rowanstudent24 says:

    This is very different than what I thought a definition essay was. I thought it was just simply defining what you’re talking about it and just expanding on it. I also never really thought of this to be an argument. A concept I might try to use in my writing is defining and explaining sub topics that surround my topic to help convey my essay.

  5. pardonmyfrench13 says:

    This differs from what I thought a definition essay would look like in a lot of ways. First off it doesn’t just define one main topic that was presented. There are several categories being described that fall into the category that was originally presented. This creates a bigger picture that allows for the author to create a stronger argument with a lot of different topics to back it up. A strategy I could use in my own essay would be ones that were used here. Use the bobblehead strategy and also create many smaller topics to support the main topic that I’m trying to argue.

  6. wafflesrgud22 says:

    I thought a definition essay meant that there was a concept that was defined and explained in the essay and not really choosing a side. In the example above, we see that there are many claims and arguments throughout the piece and not only “definitions” throughout. I think I can begin to use terms throughout my article and define them to further expand on my argument.

  7. dayzur says:

    I thought this essay would just explain what defines gay marriage, but instead gave a much greater look into the relevance of gay marriage in the real world. This is a strategy I would like to use in my essay, connecting my topic with real world relevance so it really gives the readers a greater look on the topic as a whole and makes them think a little bit more about it then they would have prior.

  8. comicdub says:

    This is different from what I thought a definition/categorical essay would look like because I thought it would be more focused on one specific term like “minorities” and go into depth of what minorities are and how these people belong to the definition of minorities. I might try the strategy of writing about something that is comparable to my hypothesis and explain how that worked to show how my hypothesis would work.

  9. gooferious says:

    I did believe that a Definition Essay was a simple provide the facts and move on. After reading the the text provided regarding Definition Essays, I now have a better understanding of what a Definition Essay is. One strategy I would use to help my paper is the real-world relevance around my topic as it is a topic that is being talked about more in today’s society.

  10. BigBarry2 says:

    This is different to what i thought a definition essay would be because instead of just explaining what things are and how it works, they argued why this certain topic should be in a discriminated group.

  11. l8tersk8ter says:

    This type of essay differs from my expectation because it focuses more on comparisons to fit into categories than straightforward definition. I had expected an essay that is more background information to set the foundation of the rest of the argument. However, this essay is part of the argument and is a start towards proving the hypothesis. For my paper I may try finding a category that has a lot of support that has similar characteristics to my topic.

  12. corinnebuck1219 says:

    This is different because instead of defining gay marriage, it uses different topics related to gay marriage to expand on it. One strategy i will try is exactly what was done here. Almost not making it obvious thinking it would be predictable, instead going outside of bubble.

  13. BabyGoat says:

    This is different than what I expected. I just thought there would a bit more of a historical viewpoint about what gays went through, and the changes now. But, I noticed that they did specify the group and made an argument over that group. One good trick I may try in my writing is to use real world relevance.

  14. sonnypetro29 says:

    This essay differs from what I thought of. instead of an overall definition of the piece, it breaks it down and gives many different examples. It gives many arguments that persuade the reader to agree with the piece. I will try and use some of the strategies we talked about in class, like the bobblehead strategy, try and use smaller examples instead of jumping right into the main topic itself

  15. sunshine2818 says:

    This is different from a definitional essay because an argument is not stated. Although claims and facts are being said, the author did not make a statement on the argument, and did not give any definition to what is ‘marriage’. One strategies I plan to use is define an argument. While also defining the argument I plan to use facts and definitions.

  16. gabythefujoshi18 says:

    Before I believed that a D/C paper was defining the topic being discussed. After the lectures, I learned that D/C papers are actually defining certain areas of the topic, like here gay marriages as something that must be protected given their circumstances. The paper is making the argument by giving examples as to why gay marriages need to be protected. I will this method in my paper as well as the bobblehead strategy.

  17. SmilingDogTheProfWants says:

    The only unexpected part of this Definition/Categorical essay is how strong the claims are. I figured the essay would be more like a list of definitions and facts that are guided by your agenda, but here it shows that it only provides what the reader needs to be able to not only understand your argument but the other side (at least that’s what I get from this paper).
    I never liked claiming my topic is the only/best way possible to solve an issue and so if I can mimic how the claims are presented in this work I can provide my readers with my information and facts in a manner that they can see not only how my view is helpful but how it can relate to other solutions.

  18. Jessicariccio says:

    This essay differs from what i thought a definition essay looked like because it compares the two sides. I would think that a definition essay is purely just definitive factual evidence which it does provide, but it still manages to make an argument. I think i will try comparing and contrasting as a technique in my own paper to give both sides of the argument and provide a rebuttal to my proposal.

  19. hailthegreat8 says:

    I think it different from what I believed an essay is supposed to look like. There are some facts that are stated but the author didn’t explain the argument and also didn’t give a clear description of what is marriage. I know one thing I probably might use in my writing is real-world relevance.

  20. oaktree1234 says:

    This is pretty different than what I thought a definition/categorical essay would be like. I assumed there would be more of an explanation/definition of what gay marriage is. Instead, it covers a variety of different topics related to gay marriage. In my own essay, I plan to use the bobblehead strategy as well as tying in current events.

  21. shadowswife says:

    This essay met my expectations of what a D/C essay would be like. I expected the essay to at least have a couple of terms that they would define throughout the essay while simultaneously, making an argument on the main topic. I would probably consider this kind of strategy where you take a few terms that involve the topic. It could be helpful in giving me some ideas on what I want to write.

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