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.

28 Responses to Definition Essay—Protected Class

  1. christianity19 says:

    This essay differs to what I thought a Definition/Categorical essay would look like because I thought I would be different in some way. One strategy I might use in my own paper is is the bobblehead strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidbdale says:

      You left the same comment on the Polio Model essay, C. I’ll repeat what I said there too: “I thought I would be different in some way” gives me no indication what difference you mean.


  2. kobebryant32 says:

    I thought we would be defining polio. Bobblehead strategy seems very good to use


    • davidbdale says:

      I think you’re in the wrong place for a comment about my Model Definition/Categorical Argument, KB. There I do argue that Polio DOES NOT BELONG TO THE CATEGORY of eradicable diseases.


  3. carsonwentz1186 says:

    I figured just by looking at the name “Definition Essay” that the essay would just be focusing on what the topic actually is rather than the deeper dive into the topic than I thought. There was also no “definition” of polio or eradication involved. I may try to incorporate the bobblehead strategy into my definition essay to develop a more convincing argument that can be backed up with other sources and logical real life applications.


    • carsonwentz1186 says:

      *gay marriage or rights


    • davidbdale says:

      Obviously there’s no definition of polio in this particular model. But I appreciate that you’re becoming aware that a Definition/Categorical essay is argumentative, not merely factual, and that it does in fact (or should) dive deeply into its subject matter. How we define or categorize our terms depends very much on our social attitudes and ethical concerns.


  4. justheretopass says:

    I thought that a “definition essay” would be just describing what your topic or main idea was on. But really there was no real definition of polio. I like the bobblehead strategy and I think it is very effect and can change a persons writing drastically.


  5. johnwick66 says:

    To be honest I assumed that based off the name of the essay it would focus more upon the idea of simply defining the topic, instead it took this heavy thinking approach that I wasn’t anticipating.


    • johnwick66 says:

      But instead it debated how people with uncontrollable characteristics(in this case gays, lesbians Etc) should be considered under a protected class. Especially when you consider that they can’t protect themselves from discrimination in the political process when the majority rule over in the government.


      • davidbdale says:

        You’re getting it, JW. Defining terms sounds pretty innocuous (and frankly boring), but definitions of social terms always involve ethical and moral considerations, are often about justice and injustice, and have serious, even life-and-death consequences.


  6. rowanrat says:

    What was the reason behind making same sex relations a crime? It’s not a harmful act so how did people get away with such laws?


  7. icedcoffeeislife says:

    This is not what I thought the “definition essay” would look like. I thought it would go more in detail on the topic, instead, the essay focused on the main points. The bobblehead strategy seems very effective in getting your point across to your reader.


    • davidbdale says:

      It turns out that in a small space, the legal definitions require a lot of checking and double-checking of the categories involved, who they include, who they exclude. In a longer essay, anecdotal evidence and individual cases would help personalize the argument.


  8. mrmba1 says:

    Nothing was directly defined within the essay. Rather, a certain topic was discussed and focused on. As pointed out above, it’s an argument not definition, and the “category” part applies more.


  9. person345 says:

    I did not think that a Definition Essay was thorough research about a topic. I thought it was defining a smaller idea from your hypothesis.


  10. honeysucklelilac says:

    this essay is different than what I thought a definition essay because I thought a definition essay would spend the entirety explaining dictionary definitions, not using your research to argue what the definitions that aid you in the proving of your hypothesis


  11. This is definitely not what I thought a definition essay would look like. This is more of a discussion or an argument rather than a strict definition. I plan on utilizing the bobblehead technique in order to convince my readers of my point. This strategy seems to be incredibly effective and I have never used it in my own writing as of yet.


    • davidbdale says:

      Yeah. Good. A Definition Argument is decidedly argumentative because, in this case for example, carefully delineating what is and what is not a “protected class” has crucial consequences for whoever belongs. Most definitions of social terms have life-and-death consequences. Be alert to those implications in your own research.


  12. imgoingswimming says:

    The definition essay is different from what I expected. I thought that we would have to focus on the definition rather than the ideas surrounding this definition. These ideas do in a way define the word much better than a simple definition.


  13. thecommoncase says:

    The D/C argument is different than I imagine since my previous idea of a definition is that it is absolute, but I see now that definitions can be changed and argued. I would use the bobblehead strategy since it seems very approachable and is a good way to break down your own thoughts about the definition.


    • davidbdale says:

      Rules do their best to be “absolute,” CC, but they’re made up of words, and as you’re discovering, words aren’t as absolute as they seem. And even when they are, “Physical Presence Required” doesn’t result in Physical Presence in every case. It’s those decisions that determine the consequences of presence or absence (and what it means to be present) that reveal definitions to be arguments.


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