The Last Defenders of Marriage

When photos of the same-sex weddings being performed in San Francisco started popping up online, I called my husband. Photos of happy couples, both sexes, all ages, in all kinds of outfits: I'll never forget the one newlywed pair who carried a stuffed monkey with them. Nor the image of the two young men in kilts, one heavy, the other slim, holding up their marriage certificate with mouths open in a joyous yawp of victory.

I called my husband because those pictures of other people happily and publicly pledging their lives to one another, made me glad he and I had done the same.

Much of the rhetoric opponents of gay marriage use depicts marriage as "under attack" from gay couples. They talk about the destabilization of society, about the dangers inherent in changing the way we see the word "spouse." Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania famously warned that if gay marriage were permitted, "man on dog" would not be far behind. So to speak.

In the years since, more than a dozen states have passed laws restricting marriage to a couple consisting of a man and a woman. Even more states have ongoing court cases in which gay couples, most pleading for the simplest things we straights take for granted: the right to be at our beloved's side if he is ill, the right to adopt a child with her if she wants a baby.

Gay union opponents can grandstand all they want about the "defense of the family." That doesn't change the fact that these loving couples fighting desperately for this right are actually reminding us, at a time when some heteros slip easily in and out of marriage and divorce at will, how precious this institution actually is. They're making it damn near impossible for even cynical sworn bachelors and bachelorettes to deny how desirable a state betrothal can be.

The political battle, however, seems to play out more nastily in every election. During the 2004 campaign in Virginia, Republican organizations posted flyers saying Democrats (many of whom themselves opposed gay marriage) wanted to legalize same-sex wedlock while banning the Bible. This fall, the topic is sure to come up again in conservative-leaning states like Ohio and Wisconsin, where voters are considering whether to amend the state constitution to keep boys from legally bumping.

Even some advocates of gay rights sometimes urge a pullback on the marriage front, saying "civil unions" will be a halfway point that does not offend too many voters squeamish about gays (you know, the type who say, "I don't mind them being gay, but why do they have to shove it down my throat by demanding health insurance?"). Domestic partnerships are often viewed as a way to give homosexual couples some protections like health insurance and hospital visitation.

But domestic partnerships at the state level, even those reinforced by extensive power-of-attorney and custody arrangements made by couples themselves, don't address the hundreds of federal benefits granted automatically to those who meet the specific legal definition of "married" or "spouse."

Everything from Social Security survivor benefits to discounts for fishing on federal land is affected by marital status. In total, more than 1,049 separate statutes mention marriage, covering issues from tax breaks to timber licenses.

So it doesn't really matter if Becky Everymatron from Ittybittyville, Nebraska, doesn't like the thought of girls getting it on (though I'm sure Mr. Everymatron doesn't mind it). Our society rewards two people who have chosen to make a public commitment to one another, and it rewards them with financial security in the form of money owned by all of us through paying our taxes.

And once we've made the choice to do that, we either extend it to all our citizens, or we fail to live up to our constitutional obligations in the most fundamental way.

The gay marriage debate isn't about what we like and don't like to see, as though we can only sanction things in America that everybody agrees with. If we outlawed everything I found icky, we'd have precious little reality television, even less war, and wearing those sparkly tank-tops Old Navy sells to 'tweens and grandmas alike would be punishable by death.

On a more personal note, not a single one of San Francisco's or Massachusetts' weddings marred my wedded bliss one bit. I was more upset by those using my marriage as an excuse to deny others their right to equal protection under the law.

San Francisco's weddings made me remember my own wedding day, and the wedding days of some dear friends: thrown petals, good wishes, sufficient champagne, a bridesmaid snogging one of the groomsmen. They made me happier to be married, the joy of those couples reflected onto the rest of us, showing us how lucky we were to witness that kind of love.

And though those marriages were later invalidated by the state of California in a mean and small-minded court decision declaring San Fran mayor Gavin Newsom had overstepped his authority in granting them, the images of hope, of courage, of determination to live in love whatever the consequences, those images inspired me and many others. Those images were our conscience, saying, Look, how can you not approve?

But Sen. Santorum can breathe easy: My husband and I recently celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary, and there was nary a dog in sight.

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