Who's to Blame for the Decline of Marriage?

This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Blade.

The milestone court decision from New Jersey paves the way for another state to recognize gay and lesbian relationships. The decision hinges on the effect of naming -- do we call it marriage or not? -- but still requires that the state extend all the rights and benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

I spent the better part of the next day telling my beloved that this doesn't clear the way for us to move to Jersey. She laughed. We feel certain that the moment is coming for Maryland so we won't have to move. I wonder, though, if what we are seeing right now is not the entry of gay and lesbian couples into the system of marriage, but the end of marriage as an institution completely?

Don't misunderstand. I don't think that gays and lesbians will be responsible for the end of marriage, but I do think the actions by some to exclude gays and lesbians from the institution foreshadows its death.

Societal institutions at the height of their power are flexible and inclusive. If others want to join, the institution can easily absorb and "normalize" people into it. Powerful institutions welcome newcomers; they want people to participate in them to strengthen their influence and impact.

Powerful institutions in our society have included our system of public education, our system of transportation--including roads, railroads, subway systems and so on -- the programs of the New Deal and many cultural institutions including television, movies and popular music. Powerful societal institutions are not like private clubs that seek to exclude to build their cache. Powerful societal institutions are invested in building power and access for all Americans, not in limiting engagement to a select few.

When institutions are waning in their power, however, they become exclusive. Instead of an expansive vision, they narrow their outlook and seek primarily to exclude rather than include. This is what right-wing extremists are doing to the institution of marriage.

The drive to exclusivity to preserve marriage only for heterosexual people ultimately works to ensure that marriage as an institution declines.

The end of marriage won't be the fault of gays and lesbians -- many of us want desperately to be a part of the institution, believing it is of value but also believing we have something to offer it to help make it a more vibrant and important institution. But it seems certain that if political discourse proceeds as it has, gays and lesbians will be blamed for its demise.

It won't matter, however, because when the blaming begins, the end is already in sight. We've witnessed many dramatic changes in family structure -- recently, couples having fewer children and more children growing up without two married parents. These changes have been blamed variously on single mothers, welfare, feminists, no-fault divorce and Paganism.

If what we are witnessing is the end of marriage, does it matter? Certainly. The end of marriage will mean that we will have an opportunity to reorganize how we form our social and familial lives. Gays and lesbians who have the history of doing this outside of sanctioned structures will be able to model effective systems of "families by choice." Instead of seeking to "get into" an institution perhaps not fully situated to accommodate our needs, we will be able to help shape a new institution that is responsive to us and our system of kinship.

And if I'm wrong? What if it isn't the end of marriage? What if marriage rallies and either sustains its significance or increases? At least then marriage will mean something different when gays and lesbians are part of it.

That transformation will be an exciting and important one. Most importantly, though, when we are on the inside of marriage, may we remember the lessons of being excluded and may we work to build vibrant societal institutions that are based on inclusive principles. May our history be allied with Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of reaching for justice.

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