Katy Burns: Gay couples have strengthened the institution of marriage
You’d have thought Spock – the pointy-eared and profoundly, almost irritatingly rational half-Vulcan, half-human icon of the apparently unending Star Trek adventures – had sneaked onto a panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges.
“It is wholly illogical,” its jurists proclaimed, “to believe that love and commitment of same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.”
What the judges referred to was the by-now tired claim that the mere existence of marriages between two men or two women would irreparably damage and perhaps actually doom the unions of heterosexual people.
Of course that premise was illogical. In fact, it was ridiculous from the start, particularly when we consider what a total mess straight people have made of matrimony. The real question now is: What on earth were we thinking when we gave – or pretended to give – serious consideration to the preposterous notion that somehow the nuptials of Sam and Steve would inevitably break up the happy unions of the world’s Barbies and Kens?
The three-judge panel was considering the constitutionality of a Utah constitutional amendment banning marriage between two men or two women. In the past year, many such amendments and laws have been challenged in courts, and they all have fallen. The 10th Circuit decision was, though, the first time a federal appeals court had ruled on the subject, thus it was considered especially important – a major step on the way to the Supreme Court.
Marriage equality is now a reality, thanks to both court decisions and legislative or popular votes, in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In another 13, courts have struck down provisions banning same-sex unions, although most are on appeal. Nearly half of all Americans now live in jurisdictions that offer same-sex marriage or some broad legal status such as civil unions.
At least I think those are the current statistics. It’s hard to be certain. The speed of the movement has been stunning, both in the country as a whole and here in New Hampshire.
Think of it. Just 15 years ago this spring, our Legislature was seriously debating whether gay people should even be allowed to be adoptive or foster parents. The issue was the proposed repeal of an ill-considered law, passed years earlier at the height of the AIDS hysteria, that not only banned gay adoption or foster parenting but even the proximity of gay people to the homes of adoptive or foster parents.
And while the repeal did pass, the outcome of that debate was by no means certain.
Yet just nine years later, in January 2008, civil unions became a legal reality in the Granite State. And only 18 months after that – on June 3, 2009 – Gov. John Lynch signed legislation legalizing gay marriage. New Hampshire became the first state to adopt marriage equality through legislation without the threat of a court judgment forcing the issue.
It passed by the narrowest of margins. Yet, just two years later, when the most conservative Legislature in memory took over the State House, its leaders – who had campaigned promising to repeal same-sex marriage – couldn’t even muster enough votes to get the bill to the floor.
I think the reason the repeal effort failed so spectacularly is simple. It’s because – despite the parade of horrors predicted by opponents of same-sex marriage – once marriage equality became law, nothing happened. Men married men, women married women. Rings and vows were exchanged, tears of joy were shed, glasses of champagne (or sparkling cider) were raised in toasts. And absolutely nothing happened. Life – the world – went on.
Oh, and some businesses – in the true New Hampshire spirit – did very well indeed. Florists, hoteliers, photographers, bakers, caterers and musicians found new, happy customers.
Most importantly, a small group of long-ostracized men and women felt, for the first time, included in our national life and dialogue. They became full members of the American family.
The reaction was much the same in other parts of the country where gay marriage came into being, even by court order. After initial shock, even horror, on the part of some straight people who really hadn’t much thought about such a possibility for most of their lives, life resumed its day-to-day rhythms. It became commonplace to see same-sex couples – and their children – at the grocery store, the movies, church, PTA meetings. And the sun still rose in the east and set in the west.
After all, gay marriage is just another step – a logical one, as Spock would say – in the acceptance of lesbians and gay men as fully fledged members of society. It has been going on, picking up speed, since gay people, at first just a few and then in rapidly increasing numbers, got tired of the closet. As more and more came out into the sunlight, straight people saw that they are our children, our sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles and sometimes even parents.
They are neighbors, teachers, firemen, cooks, accountants, soldiers, barbers, maybe that nice lady at the market cash register or the preacher who was such a comfort at Grandma’s funeral. They’re just like rest of us.
Even the most fervent guardians of the value of marriage should by now be willing to admit that extending the marriage franchise to gays and lesbians can only strengthen it.
A lot of the legal issues surrounding marriage equality are now making their way to the Supreme Court, perhaps more rapidly than once expected. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, predicting the action of that (sometimes) august body isn’t easy.
But whatever the justices do can’t undo much of what has happened. And whatever they do can’t, in the long run, stop what is one of the fastest-moving civil rights movements in American history.
After all, a whole lot of people are now asking themselves: What on earth was all the fuss about?
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)