Gay Marriage Yes!

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

The Editors

ANY DOUBTS ABOUT the meaning of the struggle for the right of gay and lesbian marriage should have disappeared forever when Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco opened the marriage bureau at city hall to same-sex couples.

Here is a struggle, it became immediately clear, way beyond the boundaries of a symbolic “culture war” or of a scholarly legal debate.  The outpouring of thousands of couples, spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to come to San Francisco, standing all night in the rain to get their marriage licenses, celebrating their own partnerships and their collective pride, establishes gay marriage as not simply an “issue” but a movement.

As a movement and as a civil right, gay marriage deserves unconditional support—not as the only issue confronting Queer people, or even intrinsically the most important; not because most Queer people want to get married; not because marriage is the only or necessarily the best conceivable form of committed relationship; it is none of these things.

Very simply, first, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have the right to the same choices as everyone else. Second, there are powerful reasons for the emotions gay marriage has generated among its celebrants—and its enemies.

“Traditional marriage has been the foundation of society for thousands of years,” wails the illiterate and bigoted right wing. The bestiary assembled around groups like Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Alliance for Marriage, Focus on the Family and so forth see their best campaign issue and most lucrative fundraising hook as a Constitutional amendment for “traditional marriage.”

What garbage.  Marriage in fact has evolved and taken a variety of forms, but for most of its history, its “traditional” common denominator purpose was to transfer control of the woman’s life, body and possessions from her family to her husband and his family.

There are plenty of sexist pigs who would undoubtedly love to restore as much of this traditional marriage as possible.  But the fact is that marriage and family institutions have irreversibly changed as women struggled for, and won at least in law if only partially in fact, the status of independent, equal, self- determining human beings.

With this change marriage has become (slowly and contradictorily) a voluntary relationship, freely chosen rather than imposed by clan or clergy.  As Jason West, the courageous Green Party mayor of New Paltz, New York put it when charged with illegally “solemnizing” gay marriages: “Marriage is the act of making public what is already written in two people’s hearts.”

It is perfectly natural, then, that this evolution would finally break down once-sacrosanct taboos against marriage across lines of social class, caste or race. Banning gay marriage today is a desperate rearguard action to salvage what the feminist poet Adrienne Rich has called “compulsory heterosexuality.”

Marriage, like the family, is today extremely pluralistic.  In many cases it is freely chosen, expressive of love and partnership.  (And divorce law is liberalized so that unhappy marriages are more easily dissolved.) For women especially, however, marriage is still all too often compelled by economic, cultural and familial pressures.

Nevertheless, no one who wishes voluntarily to enter into marriage should be thwarted on the basis of an exclusive criterion like sexual orientation or race. All those reasons why heterosexual couples choose to get hitched are exactly why lesbian and gay couples choose to get hitched.  There is no emotional difference.  There should be no legal difference.

Those lesbian and gay couples seeking marriage have not set out to “change” the institution.  They are trying to integrate into it. If in the process the institution of marriage itself evolves further, so much the better for everyone.

As for “civil union,” this is entirely appropriate as a means to give benefits to partnered relationships where people don’t choose to marry.  It is bankrupt as a second-class designation for labelling relationships where partners do want to marry and are arbitrarily denied the right to do so. It is a particularly disgusting refuge for Democratic Party scoundrels who lack the principles or guts to confront the Republican right wing on this issue, or any other.

In San Francisco, Mayor Newsom—who was barely elected over Green Party insurgent candidate Matt Gonzalez—opened the door to gay marriage not only from sincere personal conviction, but also to strengthen his political base as he sought (unsuccessfully) to push out a number of Democratic city commissioners who endorsed the Greens.

Nonetheless we honor Newsom’s act—and the great courage of the Mayor and the Unitarian ministers of New Paltz who face criminal prosecution for performing marriages for same-sex couples who seek recognition, in the beautiful language of San Francisco’s secular marriage ceremony, as “spouses for life.

ATC 110, May-June 2004