Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I have always been a lukewarm supporter of same-sex marriage even though I am gay. I used to tell gay marriage advocates that I did not risk having my head bashed in at Stonewall to earn the right to mimic the failed institutions of heterosexuality. At the same time, I have always recognized that there is something wrong with laws that bestow certain rights to one class of citizen but deny those rights to others.

Several years ago a friend of mine lost his partner in a sudden accidental death. When he attempted to enter his partner’s funeral he was denied access by the family. Even though he had been the most significant person in his partner’s life, the family, which had previously shunned their gay son, was able to prevent him from attending the funeral. This was an outrageous, unacceptable tragedy and the pain my friend felt can never be erased but he had no legal recourse. Clearly there was something wrong with the applicable laws.

Marriage conveys a long list of legal rights and responsibilities including the right to jointly own property, the right of inheritance, hospital visitation rights, the right to make medical decisions should the partner become incapacitated, the questionable right to file joint tax returns, the responsibility for each other’s debts, and many others. As Judge Walker recently ruled in overturning California’s proposition eight, the state has no valid interest in limiting these rights to opposite sex couples.

It’s interesting to note that the same rights are denied to heterosexual couples who, for whatever reason, choose not to marry. It might be possible for two consenting adults to draw up a large packet of legal documents that would convey the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. But it would be tedious and not bullet proof. It should be possible to accomplish the entire package with a single simple contract. In same states, it is. It’s called domestic partnership.

Oh, my, the red flags are waving and the alarm bells are ringing! Not that second class citizenship thing again. Well, I’m not even going to get into that argument because I could never accept one status for heterosexuals and a different one for same-sex couples. The fact is, I don’t think the government should be in the business of recognizing anyone’s relationship. Rather than advocate for same-sex marriage, I would like to see the abolition of all state-sanctioned marriages. Domestic partnerships for all; state licensed marriage for none. (I realize, of course, that the likelihood of repealing marriage is zilch.)

Throughout the rhetoric of the same-sex marriage battle, I don’t recall ever hearing either side define the term “marriage” other than opponents insisting that, whatever it is, it is for one man and one woman only. That’s part of the problem. It is an emotionally charged word that has many different meanings. To some it is a beautiful garden party where everyone is dressed in white. To others, it is a commitment ceremony witnessed by friends and families. To some, it is a religious sacrament. With all these issues whirling around the debate, it is often easy to forget that we are talking about dry, legal contracts.

How did the marriage issue manage to become the primary focus, perhaps the sole focus, of the gay rights movement? During the nineties, gay rights activists realized that in order to gain support for legal reform, we needed to educate non-gays about who we really are. We needed to dispel the myths that we were a tiny group of deviants and child molesters who would tear apart the moral fiber of America. They also realized that it is harder to be biased against a group of people if you personally know members of that group. Posters on subways and buses and ads in newspapers and magazines began to appear which featured montages of everyday people – letter carriers, nurses, business people, police, etc. – with the tag line “someone you know is gay”.

It was a good idea but it also carried a risk. All of the images were of stereotypical middle class (mostly white) people. The subliminal message was that gay people are exactly the same as straight people. The new message to middle America seemed to be that we are so indistinguishable from everyone else that we could not be perceived as a threat.

Then the anti-gay fundamentalists began their campaign that we had a hidden agenda to convert their children to homosexuality by promoting the idea that there is nothing wrong with being gay. (Why do they always think that gay life is so irresistibly attractive that without strong constraints, everyone will fall into it?) They started throwing the term “family values” into the word battle. At that point I suppose it was inevitable that we would start talking about our families too. Once again, nobody bothered to define the term.

Suddenly it seemed that the ultimate goal of every gay man and lesbian was to get married, move to a detached house in the suburbs with a white picket fence where they would push their baby strollers past lollipop gardens cheerfully greeting their adoring and suitably diverse neighbors. We were no longer the midnight cowboys whose love dare not speak its name. Being gay was no longer, by it’s very existence, an act of social revolution. It seemed that we were moving away from militantly demanding the rights which should be ours to making ourselves palatable enough to the rest of society for them to grant those rights to us.

The problem is that we are too far down the road to reverse course now. The debate over same-sex marriage has, like all of our battles, become a referendum on homosexuality. We have no choice but to support state licensed and sanctioned marriages for same-sex couples and therefore to support the continuation of the same for opposite-sex couples. The entire movement for gay equality has been placed into this one issue. If we lose this fight our cause will be severely wounded. Politicians will distance themselves further than ever from us; the fundamentalists will claim the moral high ground; the  movement will seem to have lost its momentum.

Ultimately the ban on same-sex marriage will be overturned. It’s a demographic certainty: the majority of opponents to same-sex marriage will die before the majority of supporters. When it finally happens, will it mark the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians? Probably not. It won’t even be the most important milestone in the gay rights movement. That honor will still be held by the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas in 2003 which struck down the state sodomy laws which had been used as the primary tools for persecuting and jailing gays. Nor will it be the final battle in the ongoing LGBT movement. There will still be much more work before true equality is achieved.


  1. Hi, Bill: As I think you know, Richard and I gt married in Canadda in 2007. We would have preferred to marry in our home country, but that was not possible. In NJ, where we live when not in DE,, we are "considered" married, because they recognize our Canadian marriage, but they still don't allow marriage,, just civil unions, so there is still work to be done. We got married for love, but also for employee benefits, which I qualified for under his various plans at work. Strangely, we could not qualify for domestic partnership benefits because we did not live together, but we could get married in a foreign country which acknowledges gay marriage, and I would qualify as his "spouse." Go figure! Might as well go with what works, right? Anyway, once we wewre married, this seemed to become a more important issue for us, and we hope it proceeds accordingly. I agree with you that you can set things up via wills, etc., and I also agree that if this gets to the Supremes and the "dark ages" wing of the Court wins, then the movement is probably lost. So much for the Constitution. As I've been saying a lot recently, in our country, all men are created equal, unless you're different...Bruce Karp (P.S. The "Comment" choices below don't apply to me, so I keep selecting "Anonymous," but I certainly don't wish to remain anonymous.)

  2. Right on, Bill! I myself have no desire to be married. But like you stated, my problem is the idea that one person can have a "right" to do something that another person can't. Liberty and justice for...some? xo Jan