By order of its state Supreme Court, California began legally marrying same-sex couples this week. The first to be wed in San Francisco were Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, pioneering gay-rights activists who have been a couple for more than 50 years.
More ceremonies will follow, at least until November, when gay marriage will go before California’s voters. They should choose to keep it. To understand why, imagine your life without marriage. Meaning, not merely your life if you didn’t happen to get married. What I am asking you to imagine is life without even the possibility of marriage.
Re-enter your childhood, but imagine your first crush, first kiss, first date and first sexual encounter, all bereft of any hope of marriage as a destination for your feelings. Re-enter your first serious relationship, but think about it knowing that marrying the person is out of the question.
Imagine that in the law’s eyes you and your soul mate will never be more than acquaintances. And now add even more strangeness. Imagine coming of age into a whole community, a whole culture, without marriage and the bonds of mutuality and kinship that go with it.
What is this weird world like? It has more sex and less commitment than a world with marriage. It is a world of fragile families living on the shadowy outskirts of the law; a world marked by heightened fear of loneliness or abandonment in crisis or old age; a world in some respects not even civilized, because marriage is the foundation of civilization.
This was the world I grew up in. The AIDS quilt is its monument.
Few heterosexuals can imagine living in such an upside-down world, where love separates you from marriage instead of connecting you with it. Many don’t bother to try. Instead, they say same-sex couples can get the equivalent of a marriage by going to a lawyer and drawing up paperwork – as if heterosexual couples would settle for anything of the sort.
Even a moment’s reflection shows the fatuousness of “Let them eat contracts.” No private transaction excuses you from testifying in court against your partner, or entitles you to Social Security survivor benefits, or authorizes joint tax filing, or secures U.S. residency for your partner if he or she is a foreigner. I could go on and on.
Marriage, remember, is not just a contract between two people. It is a contract that two people make, as a couple, with their community – which is why there is always a witness. Two people can’t go into a room by themselves and come out legally married. The partners agree to take care of each other so the community doesn’t have to. In exchange, the community deems them a family, binding them to each other and to society with a host of legal and social ties.
This is a fantastically fruitful bargain. Marriage makes you, on average, healthier, happier and wealthier. If you are a couple raising kids, marrying is likely to make them healthier, happier and wealthier, too. Marriage is our first and best line of defense against financial, medical and emotional meltdown. It provides domesticity and a safe harbor for sex. It stabilizes communities by formalizing responsibilities and creating kin networks. And its absence can be calamitous, whether in inner cities or gay ghettos.
In 2008, denying gay Americans the opportunity to marry is not only inhumane, it is unsustainable. History has turned a corner: Gay couples – including gay parents – live openly and for the most part comfortably in mainstream life. This will not change, ever.
Because parents want happy children, communities want responsible neighbors, employers want productive workers, and governments want smaller welfare caseloads, society has a powerful interest in recognizing and supporting same-sex couples. It will either fold them into marriage or create alternatives to marriage, such as publicly recognized and subsidized cohabitation. Conservatives often say same-sex marriage should be prohibited because it does not exemplify the ideal form of family. They should consider how much less ideal an example gay couples will set by building families and raising children out of wedlock.
Nowadays, even opponents of same-sex marriage generally concede it would be good for gay people. What they worry about are the possible secondary effects it could have as it ramifies through law and society. What if gay marriage becomes a vehicle for polygamists who want to marry multiple partners, egalitarians who want to radically rewrite family law, or secularists who want to suppress religious objections to homosexuality?
Space doesn’t permit me to treat those and other objections in detail, beyond noting that same-sex marriage no more leads logically to polygamy than giving women one vote leads to giving men two; that gay marriage requires only few and modest changes to existing family law; and that the Constitution provides robust protections for religious freedom.
I’ll also note, in passing, that these arguments conscript homosexuals into marriagelessness in order to stop heterosexuals from making bad decisions, a deal to which we gay folks say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We wonder how many heterosexuals would give up their own marriage, or for that matter their own divorce, to discourage other people from making poor policy choices. Any volunteers?
Honest advocacy requires acknowledging that same-sex marriage is a significant social change and, as such, is not risk-free. I believe the risks are modest, manageable, and likely to be outweighed by the benefits. Still, it’s wise to guard against unintended consequences by trying gay marriage in one or two states and seeing what happens, which is exactly what the country is doing.
By the same token, however, honest opposition requires acknowledging that there are risks and unforeseen consequences on both sides of the equation. Some of the unforeseen consequences of allowing same-sex marriage will be good, not bad. And barring gay marriage is risky in its own right.
America needs more marriages, not fewer, and the best way to encourage marriage is to encourage marriage, which is what society does by bringing gay couples inside the tent. A good way to discourage marriage, on the other hand, is to tarnish it as discriminatory in the minds of millions of young Americans. Conservatives who object to redefining marriage risk redefining it themselves, as a civil-rights violation.
There are two ways to see the legal marriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. One is as the start of something radical: an experiment that jeopardizes millennia of accumulated social patrimony. The other is as the end of something radical: an experiment in which gay people were told that they could have all the sex and love they could find, but they could not even think about marriage. If I take the second view, it is on conservative – in fact, traditional – grounds that gay souls and straight society are healthiest when sex, love and marriage all walk in step.