The setback at California’s Supreme Court is only a bump in the road. When same-sex marriage becomes legal in Iowa, you know the train has left the station. So irresistible has the momentum become that I predict that within a year, two at most, same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide. That’s a change that seemed unthinkable a decade ago. But there’s a downside (as I predicted in an op-ed titled “Mixed Blessings” way back in December 2003/January 2004’s FI). Here’s one secular humanist whose celebration of gay marriage’s impending victory will be tempered by a recognition of what all of us, gay and straight, lost along the way.
Make no mistake, there’s much to cheer for in the prospect that same-sex marriage will soon be legal. A deep-seated social prohibition rooted in religion will have been overthrown. A group that was formerly among the most discriminated-against in America will have chalked up an immense gain in human rights. Okay, that’s two cheers. Call me a curmudgeon if you must, but I regret that along the road to this great victory an even larger human-rights gain affecting even more potential beneficiaries got cast aside.
What am I driving at? Well, consider the scenario most social-change advocates probably expected to unfold as of, say, ten years ago. Inside and outside of the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) community, most activists circa-1999 anticipated something like this: some bright day, maybe twenty-five years in the future, GLBT activists would finally succeed in getting some kind of civil union firmly recognized in the law. Same-sex marriage was out of the question, something that would happen only after pigs fly. No, the old game plan aimed at establishing a new alternative institution for recognizing committed relationships, what became known as “civil union.” Civil union would one day provide the benefits opposite-sex couples realized through matrimony: community property, clear custody of children, the right to inherit, access in hospital, access to health insurance, and so on.
There were pluses and minuses to this approach. On the minus side, civil union would never be marriage. Same-sex couples would always have to settle for what some would regard as “second-class nuptials.” On the plus side, well, civil union would never be marriage. Matrimony, after all, is a bastard—strike that, a hybrid—institution, rooted partly in the law and partly in the churches. And it carries unsavory baggage: from time immemorial to as recently as our great-grandparents’ time, matrimony amounted to the bride’s father transferring property rights in his daughter to the groom. It locked women into relationships in which they couldn’t own property and couldn’t vote—where they essentially existed only as legal shadows of their husbands. Yes, those days are gone. But matrimony carries their taint in a way that civil union, a wholly new institution, does not. Further, as a de novo creation under law, civil union would be utterly secular, free of any historical attachment to the churches. Finally, civil union offers at least the possibility of expanding the range of relationship types the law would recognize and privilege: “couples” with more than two members, open or communal arrangements, perhaps combinations of persons not linked by romantic relationships. (If two platonic friends opt to share a household long-term, why on earth shouldn’t one be able to visit the other in the hospital, inherit from the other, and so on?)
For all of these and other reasons, some social-change activists wanted nothing to do with traditional matrimony. (For a sample, check out the Alternatives to Marriage Project at atmp.org.) We (for I am one of them) were waiting hungrily for the day when same-sex civil unions became legal—so that we could sue to have the same privilege extended to opposite-sex couples. We wanted alternatives to marriage, too. Of course, when attained that would represent a human-rights advance even larger than same-sex marriage because it would benefit all persons regardless of sexual orientation.
And yet today, that’s the scenario that will come about when pigs fly. Why? Six or seven years ago, the GLBT community realized that gay marriage might be an attainable goal. In short order, the old strategy of seeking to create robust civil unions was cast aside to pursue this glittering new hope. Now the GLBT movement is on the cusp of victory, an attainment that should never be underestimated. It will be a great step toward fulfilling America’s historic promise of fairness and equality. But let’s never forget that it came at a price. As the twenty-first century turned, the GLBT movement—arguably the most-powerful, best-organized, best-funded social change movement then operating in America—stopped being an opponent of traditional matrimony. Instead of applying its impressive muscle to creating an alternative to this hoary, unsecular, historically sexist, and needlessly restrictive institution, the movement instead opted to perpetuate it. If the status quo could be expanded to include same-sex couples too, the GLBT community would withdraw its challenge to matrimony’s monopoly on the legal recognition of committed relationships.
Those of us who eagerly awaited a legally robust alternative institution are the losers. The GLBT movement was the only constituency on today’s horizon with the power to force that sort of reform. In all likelihood, no strong and legal alternative to marriage will be achieved during our lifetimes.
Oh well, it was too late for me anyway. Several years ago my live-in life partner and I gave up and tied the knot for a venal but very pragmatic reason: yes, health insurance. I’m happy to report that matrimony did nothing to ruin our relationship. (Eternal vigilance and all that.) But how I wish we could have been among the first plaintiffs to sue for civil unions for straight couples!