Gay Marriage: Both Sides are Wrong
[I wrote this essay back when gay marriage was a hot issue; my new blog seems a good place to publish it]
Recent acts by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts and the Mayor of San Francisco have shifted the front line of the controversy over same-sex couples. It used to be civil union versus nothing; it is now marriage versus civil union. This raises an obvious question--why does the distinction matter?
Some commentators assume that the important difference is in the legal rights that marriage would, and civil union would not, give a partner under federal law. Finding that an inadequate explanation for the passions on both sides, I put the question to a gay colleague. His answer was immediate and unambiguous--what mattered was the symbolism. As long as people like him were not permitted to call their unions marriage, the government was implicitly condemning their relationships as at least inferior, arguably wicked.
I put the same question to an intelligent, educated elderly man of my acquaintance, married fifty years and proud of it. He agreed that the essential question was symbolic. He thought it was clear that gay couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. But he also thought it clear that their relationships were not marriages.
I agree with both of them--the essential issue is symbolic. I disagree with both about the conclusion. A law that forbids same sex marriage imposes on everyone the view of one side of the controversy; a law that permits it imposes on everyone the view of the other side. My colleague has the right to live with his partner on the same legal terms that I live with my wife, but he does not have the right to insist that other people regard their relationship as marriage. Making laws about symbolism is not the business of the U.S. government.
The only way out of this dilemma is the neutral option: Get the government out of the business of defining what is or is not marriage. Revise laws where necessary to define legally relevant relationships in gender neutral terms. If a state wants to give special rights to one person in regard to another based on their relationship--the right, say, to make medical decisions in an emergency --let it define the relationship by how long they have lived together, whether they share property, the existence of a public commitment, or whatever other criteria are relevant. Churches, and anyone else, are free to handle marriage as they choose. The legal consequences are gone. The social consequences are up to all the other people who do or do not choose to regard a couple as married.