Perhaps it is the irony of a half-naked man in fairy wings parading the streets of San Francisco claiming he’s just like everyone else. Perhaps, Congress, full of disgruntled men sympathetic to Senator Larry Craig and unable to exercise their public restroom fantasies, exude their anger by passing constitutional amendments barring same-sex couples from marriage. Americans, quite vehemently, are still bickering about what should be done with what President Bush has called “the most fundamental institution of civilization.”
But what exactly do gay people want and why are their opponents so intent on denying it to them? Libertarian journalist and gay-rights proponent, Andrew Sullivan, says he wants the right to marriage, “a lifetime legal commitment between two unrelated, consenting adults to take responsibility for each other (and their children, if any) and to share their lives and home together.” Despite the call for civil rights, marriage has been declared as the “sacred institution” that Bush and his conservative followers so desperately want to “protect” via a constitutional amendment limiting it to a man and a woman. How can a legal institution in a country with a clear division of church and state be sacred? Unless, of course, there are multiple components of marriage—religious, societal, and governmental— and people like the President still have trouble distinguishing them. Once marriage is narrowed to the legal definition with societal implications, one can then better look at the arguments against. However, even after sifting through the name-calling and shaky assertions of societal degradation, there is simply no logical reason why two individuals of the same sex should be denied access to the title of marriage and all encompassing federal and state benefits.
Let us first dispel the notion that marriage is purely about love and that to deny gay marriage is to deny gay love. Historically, a large portion of marriage was never about love, but rather about religion and practicality. In the interests of procreation and stability, there has existed across the spans of civilization polygamy, polyandry, arranged marriages, and marriages between adults and minors. Not relatively long ago in western culture, women were the legal property of their husbands, miscegenation was illegal, contraception in any form was considered sinful, divorce was illegal, and the list of what are now generally considered archaic practices goes on. Much like the movement to extend the current institution, the changes in those practices were brought about by the people of the era who thought reform was a sensible idea. In America, with the rise of individualisitic culture, marriage became mostly a personal decision rather than one of families or organizations. It is generally agreed that it is more convenient to marry a person you love as opposed to someone you do not. However, no authority dictates that one has to be in love with the person he or she chooses to marry. Legalizing same-sex marriage would allow two persons of the same gender to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, denoting that this is not a strictly homosexual issue. Rather, it is a fundamental civil rights issue that just happens to largely affect gay people in love.
In a 1997 letter to Representative Harry J. Hyde, the U.S. General Accounting Office states that there are over a thousand “federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent upon marital state.” State laws confer hundreds more of these benefits, rights, and privileges. Areas affected include joint parenting, joint insurance policies, Social Security benefits, veterans’ benefits, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare, hospital visitation, estate taxes, retirement savings, family leave, and immigration law, among others. Situations have existed in which individuals were economically deprived by the federal government’s unwillingness to accept same-sex marriages from the state of Massachusetts. A well-cited case occurred in 2006 when Congressman Gerry Studds died, and his legal husband was unable to collect his estimated $114,337 annual pension, because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) did not recognize the marriage at the federal level.
DOMA itself and similar state laws have been criticized as being unconstitutional, violating sections of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, all attempts to challenge the law have thus far been overturned in the lower court systems. The word “liberty” in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment apparently does not apply to the liberty to marry someone with the same sex chromosomes, even though it’s previously been ruled that that Fourteenth Amendment applies to the right to abortion (Roe v. Wade) and interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia). Some scholars, such as Professor James Donovan from the University Georgia School of Law, believe that DOMA is absurd and unconstitutional in both intent and effect. In his study of the federal law he noted that it would need to have a legitimate secular reasoning behind it to be valid. But he failed to find such reasoning, and in the conclusion of his analysis he designates DOMA’s purpose as a “symbol of legislative support for Fundamentalist Christianity.”
Contrasting the large number of states that forbid same-sex unions of any form, there are a few states which offer comprehensive civil unions. According to the state attorney general, as of February 19, 2007, New Jersey civil unions offer “all of the rights and obligations of marriages to same-sex couples.” While an improvement on the New Jersey’s pre-existing domestic partnership law, the new system brings up an eerie parallel to the well-known “separate but equal” concept. Andrew Sullivan claims that calling it anything other than marriage “essentially creates a two-tiered system, with one marriage model clearly superior to the other. The benefits may be the same, as they were for black couples, but the segregation is just as profound.” Sullivan also claims that in addition to the civil benefits, marriage is a “fundamental mark of citizenship.” Essentially, by denying the title of marriage, it stigmatizes same-sex couples as second-class citizens. Many organizations avoid this daunting political logic all together by denouncing same-sex couples for reasons sociological in basis.
One major sociological concern often brought up in the marriage debate is that for the children. Advocates of this stance purport that marriage’s primary social function is to raise the next generation, and non-traditional upbringings could potentially harm the well-being of the children. Arguers say the right to adopt and parent children and right to marry, though related, are fundamentally separate issues. Many heterosexual married couples chose not to have children; conversely, there are single people who decide to have or to adopt children. These are personal choices protected under civil law. The question is how the quality of guardianship of same-sex couples compares to that of opposite-sex couples. Social analysts William Meezan and Jonathon Rauch attempt to answer that question in a comprehensive review of social studies for The Future of Children, an organization for effective child policy. Their report cites the American Psychological Association’s conclusion, “Overall, results of research suggest that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.” Also cited are four other methodologically rigorous studies which came to similar findings. In Meezan and Rauch’s conclusion they comment that no amount of theorizing with limited data can predict definitive results, and the only way to determine the effect of same-sex marriage would be to legalize it on the large scale.
Another concern of opponents is that legalizing same-sex marriage would be a gateway to legalizing other dubious practices. By blurring current standards of equality and rights, they claim, gay marriage leaves the door open to legislation that is morally reprehensible. They often include incest, polygamy, and bestiality, among the practices that could follow gay marriage. Andrew Sullivan comments on this logic in an editorial debate:
Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is an unchosen emotional and sexual orientation. Incest, polygamy, and bestiality are subsequent activities, choices, and moral behaviors that are available to heterosexual and homosexual alike. It is perfectly possible therefore—logically, morally, politically, theologically, socially—to include homosexuals within the existing institution and retain a complete and inviolable bar against all these other activities.
Sullivan argues that gay marriage is a scapegoat and that there exists no logical connection between homosexuality and the other activities at all. He also brings up the scientific validation of homosexuality. The APA revoked its classification of homosexuality as a disorder in1973 and currently “supports and urges the enactment of civil rights legislation at the local, and state and federal level that would offer citizens who engage in acts of homosexuality the same protections now guaranteed to others on the basis of race, creed, color, etc.” The APA is among the many institutions in favor of same-sex marriage including the Anthropological Association of American, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association of Social Workers, among others.
There are more proposed types of economic benefits from gay marriage than those bestowed by the government. Writer and comedian Tina Feys has stated that private industry will prosper as well: “We’re talking about designer wedding cakes, $20,000 sleeveless tuxedos, giant naked man ice sculptures that pee mojitos… Remember, whatever your political beliefs, a vote to allow gay marriage is a vote for a fabulous economy.” The comment has obvious comedic effect, but it is not far from the truth. Economist Dr. M. V. Lee Badgett’s research estimates the potential impact of same-sex marriage legalization would be $300 million to the wedding industry in the state of New Jersey alone; the typical New Jersey wedding costs more than $35,000 and her calculation uses a conservative estimative of one-fourth that cost. Marriage, gay or straight, proves to be good news for the economy.
Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of same-sex marriage, the controversy continues. A Gallup Organization poll in May 2006 indicated 58% of the 1002 American sample were opposed of same-sex marriage, 39% were in favor, and 3% were undecided or did not respond. The trend indicated that the younger the adult, the more likely he or she was to be in favor. This generational discrepancy can explain why opinions on such issues can shift dramatically in a matter of decades. For example, in 1948, when California became the first state to allow interracial marriage, about 90% of American adults disapproved. This dropped to 72% by 1967 when it was approved on a federal level. Interracial marriage remains a prime example of how the institution of marriage has changed or expanded in relatively recent years. Social institutions have changed quite frequently and will inevitably continue to change upon the willingness of the people. But just in case a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage manages to pass, as Prohibition demonstrated, constitutional amendments are quite reversible.
It is once again time for the American people to distinguish between what is arbitrary and what is sensible in a legal and social institution. It is time to the people to accept that if same-sex marriage is legalized, life will go on and without apocalyptic moral depravity any more than the norm. History’s trends indicate that on matters such as these, once legalized, the lobbyists will calm down. The controversy will fade in time, and the screaming and picketing can stop, at least until the next major social movement comes and the process can start all over again.