In the intensifying debate over same-sex marriage, what I sometimes find hardest to understand is why so many opponents don’t see gay people’s longing to be wedded as the fundamentally conservative, lavishly complimentary desire it is. It says marriage is worth aspiring to and fighting for. Flatters it. Gives it reinvigorated cachet, extra currency, a sorely needed infusion of fresh energy.
If those seem like odd phrases to attach to what is sometimes called holy matrimony, well, consider the unholy state the institution is in. Around the time last week that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was vetoing a same-sex marriage bill that the Legislature had passed, The Times published a front-page story by Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise reporting that the country had reached an ignoble milestone: more than half of births to American women under 30 happen outside marriage. I doubt that a significant fraction of those babies’ parents are gay men or lesbians forbidden to wed. No doubt the huge majority are straight people who haven’t bothered to.
Those who do bother don’t make such an impressive go of it. Although there’s dispute over the divorce rate in this country, most authorities estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of first marriages won’t last. And practice doesn’t make perfect: the divorce rate apparently rises for second and third unions, like Newt Gingrich’s with Callista, a supposedly pious Roman Catholic woman whose devotion didn’t dissuade her from sleeping with him while he was married to his second wife.
The religiousness of this country’s social conservatives is a selective, capricious, hypocritical thing. Some Catholics who cite church teaching to explain their opposition to same-sex marriage have broods much smaller than they likely would if they let nature have its way. They’re using artificial birth control, which, as we’ve recently been reminded, the church officially rejects, a stance that illuminates just how ludicrous some orthodoxies are.
It’s funny (but, then again, not): in the past, homosexuals were denounced as sexual libertines who brazenly flouted society’s norms. Now many of us are pleading to be yoked to those norms, only to be told by many Americans, including many political leaders, that that’s not O.K. either. The only possible takeaway is that we’re meant to be outliers forevermore, unworthy of the experiences and affirmations accorded others.
Christie’s veto — considered alongside the fervent support for marriage equality that Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, and Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor, have shown — provides telling clues about how the issue will shake out politically in coming years.
A Republican with designs on national office has to assume that even in 2016, a gay-friendly record would be a burden in the primaries, which tug moderates far to the right. If Christie fantasizes about a future presidency — or an imminent vice presidency — opposition to marriage equality is probably the safer bet.
But has he risked his chances at a second term in New Jersey, which is more liberal than the nation? Cory Booker, the Newark mayor, who is frequently mentioned as a possible Democratic challenger to Christie next year, explicitly reaffirmed his support for same-sex marriage last week.
I don’t discount the possibility that a measure of conviction informs politicians’ actions. But there’s usually calculation in the mix. Cuomo and O’Malley are rising Democratic stars whose advocacy for same-sex marriage suggests confidence that more Americans are moving in that direction. In polls, large majorities between the ages of 18 and 34 support marriage equality, and when I talk to parents of teenagers, many tell me their children simply don’t understand discrimination against homosexuals. And their children aren’t permissive across the board: many oppose abortion. They’ve grown up with more evocative sonograms than once existed.
By this week’s end, O’Malley may be signing a marriage-equality law in Maryland. The State of Washington just adopted its own. Although either could be overturned by referenda later this year, the legislative momentum is undeniable, and O’Malley’s words of support point an interesting way forward.
He has framed same-sex marriage in part as an attempt to take proper care of children in households headed by two men or two women by making sure their parents have the same legal protections and responsibilities — the same spurs to stability, however flawed — that heterosexual parents do. And that exact logic was cited by a previously reluctant Republican in the Maryland House who voted in favor of the state’s same-sex marriage bill last week.
Both politicians were talking about family values, two words that have often been invoked in the argument against same-sex marriage. It’s time to turn the phrase around. What gay and lesbian couples are asking is to be recognized as families. And they’re just idealistic enough to hope that everyone realizes how much value there is in that.