Unless you've been on an extended monastic retreat, you know that May 17, 2004, was the day that same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. I went to the Amherst (Massachusetts) Town Hall that morning to join in the celebration organized by the town's Human Rights Commission and Health Department. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the couples put all the political, religious, and constitutional arguments out of my head for the moment. What was present was the joy, the connection and caring that everyone was feeling. Couples who have been together 10, 20, and more years were now able to step forward and have their loving relationships recognized. Tears were plentiful, but so were smiles and laughter. On May 30, I was privileged to see two of those relationships affirmed. In the morning I attended the local Quaker Meeting, which was able to make legal (in the eyes of the state) a marriage between two women that had taken place under their care 11 years ago. Later that day two of my lesbian neighbors were married in a joyous ceremony that was extraordinary in its "normality": just a wedding of two people who love each other, though simultaneously so much more than that. Historic moments should all be so good. What follows is a commentary I wrote weeks before history was made.
I don't get it.
Try as I might, I can't understand why the opponents of gay marriage are so upset at the prospect that people who love each other want to make their commitment official. The arguments I've heard just don't measure up to the vehemence with which the antis stand against what many courts are increasingly recognizing as a basic right.
The biblical argument doesn't work. Sure, there are lots of biblical citations about marriage being between a man and a woman. But there are also references to polygamy, slavery, wife-beating, and marital customs long abandoned. And there is the simple truth that we're talking about civil marriage, not religious practice. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples can refuse to recognize gay marriage just as they can refuse to sanction interreligious or interracial marriage; it makes no difference to the state, but the state can and should still recognize all these kinds of marriage.
Some of the opponents argue that the function of marriage is to produce and rear children. Are they really prepared to say that a postmenopausal woman or a sterile man should not be allowed to marry? Why do we celebrate the marriage of elderly couples? What about lesbian couples who bear biological children with the help of sperm donors? Are they inherently different from heterosexual couples who do the same because the male partner is sterile? And what about couples who choose not to have children? Is their marriage invalid? I don't believe anyone is about to outlaw marriage of childless couples, precisely because we all recognize that marriage has a variety of social functions, one of which historically has been to legitimate the patrimony of children. As the stigma of illegitimacy has thankfully all but disappeared, that aspect of marriage has become considerably less important. What remains is the desire of couples to make solemn their commitment to each other, and to ensure a whole variety of rights with respect to each other, their commonly held property--and their children if they have them.
Another argument based on children is the one that says every child needs a mother and a father. Even if the supposed research on the subject held water, it has nothing to do with the law. There are no laws forbidding single parenthood. Widows and widowers don't have their children taken away if they don't remarry. In Massachusetts and many other states, single adults, unmarried straight couples, and, yes, gay and lesbian singles and couples can legally adopt children. I am honored to know gay and lesbian parents of biological and adopted children who are doing very well, thank you--studies or no studies. I also know many single parents who do stellar jobs of raising their children, sometimes with the support of the noncustodial parent but often without. Whatever the family constellation, it seems, the important element is the hard work that the parent or parents put into caring for their children. As co-director of the Men's Resource Center, I can attest to the value of having involved fathers be present in their children's lives. But that does not mean the one-mother/one-father family structure is the only one that works. If the last couple of decades has taught us anything, it's that we live in a time when a great variety of family arrangements can bring children up to be healthy and secure. What matters is the thought, love, and resources these different kinds of families can bring to bear on this most important of tasks.
Finally, there's the particularly strange argument that allowing gay marriage will somehow lessen the value of heterosexual unions. Can someone please tell me just how this will happen? Currently, about half of all marriages end in divorce--even though gay marriage wasn't legal anywhere in the United States until May 17 of this year. So the institution of marriage isn't in great shape. Yet there those thousands of couples were, standing in the rain in San Francisco, waiting to take their vows. How is this weakening marriage? Is there one straight couple out there who had been contemplating marriage but now have decided it's not worth it because there might be some gay and lesbian couples somewhere who are also married? People get married because they love each other, and stay married if they work at keeping the relationship strong. What happens next door or in the next county matters little or not at all. Others choose not to marry for a whole host of reasons, from income tax and property laws to fear of commitment. I doubt anyone has ever looked over his or her shoulder to see what other types of folks are getting married and used that to make the decision about whether to tie the knot.
So I'm left with no reasoning for opposing gay marriage that makes sense, other than that some straights can't think of gays and lesbians as anything but Other. And the Other is not entitled to be Like Us. At base, this is simply a matter of maintaining privilege: straight people can have the social and legal standing that comes with marriage, but gays and lesbians can't because they're gays and lesbians. It's just the way it is. This is an argument I can understand. And I reject it utterly.
Michael Dover is MRC co-director. A version of this commentary appeared in the Amherst (Mass.) Bulletin on April 23rd.