A Liberal's Critique of Gay Marriage

by Sam Gridley


In the interest of both brevity and provocation, the title of this essay has been compressed. As a card-carrying wishy-washy liberal (WWL), I'm actually not against gay marriage per se, just leery of it as a political agenda. This position certainly qualifies as wishy-washy, and you may think it also reveals the deep befuddlement of American liberalism. But let me explain.

     Civil unions, I think, are cool: same-sex domestic partnerships legally equivalent to marriage, granting the participants the same rights as married folk, such as social security benefits and family leave allowances. For a short time America had a pretty strong campaign for civil unions. They were legalized in a few states, but then most activists zipped right on to the marriage question, arguing that anything less than marriage is less than half a loaf for gay rights.

     That's when the controversy grew much louder and more strident. And no wonder. We like to think our society separates church and state, but marriage is one institution that thoroughly muddles the two. A minister can't grant you a driver's license, but he or she can perform your marriage, and your new status is then recognized by the state. Similarly, a justice of the peace can't give you holy communion, but he or she can place you in a wedded condition that your church will deem "holy" matrimony. For better or worse, we've had centuries of collaboration between church and state in the recognition and support of marriage. Occasionally the two disagree, as when the Catholic church refuses to recognize lay divorces or the state of Utah prosecutes old-style-Mormon polygamists, but by and large the church and state (and I mean, of course, any religious body and any level of government) have snuggled together as warmly on this issue as George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

     Hence the confusion when we try to talk about the matter. The religious right fulminates that legalizing gay weddings would undermine the sanctity of marriage. Logically, of course, that's nuts: the state cannot make something sacred or not sacred. Sanctification is the province of religion alone. But the other side is sometimes just as illogical. On the TV news one night, in the midst of a demonstration for gay marriage rights, I spotted a young man with a sign that claimed the government was denying him a holy sacrament. Plainly he was blaming the wrong authorities. The long arm of the law can issue him a parking ticket or a tax refund but not a sacrament.

     This habit of thought, scrambling the roles of church and state in defining marriage, is so deeply ingrained that it will take generations to change. In our lifetimes, then, gay marriage is unlikely to succeed in more than a handful of states, if that many, and where it does find its way into law, the deeply offended Right will keep battling it, as they've done with <i>Roe v. Wade.</i> They'll get increasingly fearful and bitter and weird. Already newspaper columnist Jonathan Last, reputed to be a clear-thinking conservative, has warned that the gay marriage movement presages an "assault on religious liberty." Huh? Huh?

     Worse, the Right will keep using gay marriage as one of its scare tactics, ensuring more presidents like George W. Not that I'm a tremendous fan of the Kerrigores, but it's like that joke about growing old--consider the alternative.

     Thus I believe the campaign for gay marriage is counterproductive. In fact, I consider it a sign of our fanatical times--an example of liberals' becoming as extreme and unreasonable as the good old boys we love to hate. If gay activists and their WWL supporters had focused on civil unions instead of marriage, there'd be much less paranoia about sacraments and such, and by now we'd probably have several more states where same-sex partners could collect social security--and pay alimony--to their hearts' content.

     What about the idea, advanced by many in the gay community, that settling for civil unions automatically marks gays as second-class citizens? I don't accept that. Civil unions can be explicitly defined, as they are in Vermont, as conferring "all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities ... as are granted to spouses in a marriage." In secular terms, it's the same thing by a different name. In spiritual terms, it leaves matters entirely up to individual religious bodies, which can choose to recognize civil unions or not (and they have every right to do either).

     And here's a more fundamental thought: The foundation of the gay rights movement is self-respect. If gays are truly proud of who they are, why can't they celebrate civil unions as a mark of distinction? After all, the most basic fact of gayness is the gender of your partner, so why not welcome a unique name for that partnership?

     If we dump this ill-advised marriage campaign and work instead for the recognition of civil unions, I can imagine a future in which a scenario like this plays out: Late on a weeknight, two guys are drinking at a neighborhood bar. One of them starts grumbling about his wife, the standard complaints about her pestering constantly, begrudging him time with his pals, etc. The bartender drifts away, having heard it much too often before. But the second guy at the bar nods his head and makes sympathetic grunts. After a while the first guy glances over and asks, "What about you then--you married?" The second man sits up straighter. "Married? Hell no," he says proudly, "I'm CU'd, going on 14 years." Then he gazes deep into his glass and mutters, "But my man's as goddamn exasperating as your wife."

     That, to my mind, is true equality.


Brief bio.: Sam Gridley's fiction and satire have appeared in two dozen magazines and anthologies, both in print and online. Some of his work is available for free download at Gridleyville.com.


Contact: e-mail sam@gridleyville.com or doug@pmgordon.com, or write to Douglas Gordon, P. M. Gordon Associates, 2115 Wallace Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130. Telephone: 215-769-2525.