Why Straight People Need to Get into the Fight for Marriage Equality

Pragmatism doesn't mean leaving your core principles at the door.
Marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is vitally important, and working toward achieving it is a "good fight," but the sad truth is that too many straight progressives see it as a second-tier issue, relegating it to a kind of "gay ghetto."

Now, it just so happens that I'm straight (not that there's anything wrong with that), and yet I think it's crucial that same-sex couples enjoy full marriage equality -- and not just "civil unions." Why the unyielding stance, given that the whole thing will never affect me directly?

It's the underlying principle at stake that's so important. Either the law treats all citizens the same, regardless of race, sex, creed, how they identify themselves or whom they happen to love, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then my own rights are in no way secure.

That's an elemental principle of liberalism. One thing I admire about the conservative movement is its ability to stick to its ideological guns -- its core philosophy -- no matter how unpopular that philosophy may be. It's true that George W. Bush has spent tax dollars like Paris Hilton on a shopping binge -- even with a Republican Congress -- and that he's nationalizing banks faster than you can say "Hugo Chavez," but he still lauds the ideal of "limited government" and praises the "power of the free market."

It's not so when it comes to that very important progressive ideal that the law should apply to all people equally; on same-sex marriage, Democrats (if not progressives) have proven to be pretty squishy.

Most polls show that more Americans oppose gay marriage than support it (although the trend has been heading toward supporting full rights for gays and lesbians for a while). In 2004, John Kerry saw those polls and said he opposed gay marriage. This year, Barack Obama and Joe Biden have both announced that while they support civil unions, they oppose real marriage equality.

Obama told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs, say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman."

(Obama, who supports most civil rights for gays and lesbians, reportedly refuses to be photographed with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has been at the center of the gay marriage controversy.)

Of civil unions, Obama says, "Giving (gays and lesbians) a set of basic rights would allow them to experience their relationship and live their lives in a way that doesn't cause discrimination." He added, "I think it is the right balance to strike in this society."

That's the Democratic party line at this point, and it's a popular one -- only about 1 in 3 Americans oppose granting some sort of recognition to gay couples. But it doesn't change the fact that we have a candidate -- the first African-American to have a shot at the nation's highest elected office, no less -- who appears to be OK with the idea of government offering rights and privileges to some citizens while withholding them from others.

This isn't an issue of a minority group pushing its "agenda" on an unwilling majority, or a case of activist judges "legislating from the bench." The simple fact is that the legal basis for discriminating against gays and lesbians had long been that their intimate activities were illegal in many states. When state sodomy laws were struck down in the Supreme Court's landmark ruling Lawrence V. Texas, the idea that gay and lesbian couples could be treated as "separate but equal" under the law vanished (even Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with that premise in his fiery dissent).

If you believe in the principle of equal protection, then there are only two options: Let the state marry same-sex couples; or get the state out of the marriage business altogether, and rather have it offer "civil unions" to all couples, whether gay or straight.

Either solution would be fine with me. In the latter approach, the government would issue everyone the same civil unions, and people could have their "marriages" solemnized in religious or civil ceremonies. This kind of arrangement isn't at all unusual. In many countries, couples get recognized once by the state and a second time by a religious institution. And all you'd need to do is change the laws already on the books so they reference "civil union" rather than "marriage."

That would preserve the American ideal of equal protection without imposing my own moral beliefs on people whose religion precludes same-sex unions. It would be up to individual houses of worship to determine their own marriage norms. This represents true religious freedom -- liberal institutions, like Unitarian churches, could marry gays and lesbians, while more "traditional" faiths would be free to insist that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to a simple question: Do you want to live in a country in which every citizen enjoys equal protection under the law, or don't you? For me, the answer is a no-brainer, and one on which I'm not prepared to compromise in the name of pragmatism.


You can help support marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples by donating some time or money to No on 8, the coalition working to defeat the gay marriage ban in California, No on 2 in Florida and No on 102 in Arizona.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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