MAY 17 WAS a milestone: the one-year anniversary of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. The media marked the occasion by spotlighting some of the 6,000 gay and lesbian couples who got married here during the past 12 months, and if there was a common theme that ran through all the interviews and profiles, it was the joy of the newlyweds. Hundreds of same-sex couples converged on Boston Common to celebrate the anniversary on Tuesday, and in the large group photo that appeared in The Boston Globe the next morning, virtually every face is wreathed in smiles. If I were a supporter of same-sex marriage, I would congratulate the delighted couples on their anniversary and wish them continued happiness.
But I am an opponent of same-sex marriage. That being the case, my message to the couples is: Congratulations on your anniversary, and may you enjoy continued happiness.
I mention my sincere good wishes only because so many supporters of same-sex marriage think that anyone who disagrees with them must be an ignorant bigot. Time and again, I have been told that my views on marriage are morally equivalent to the views of a segregationist on race, or a Nazi on Jews. It is remarkable: Express the conviction that marriage should mean what it has always meant -- the union of male and female -- and you are likely to be told that you are peddling hate.
Of all the motifs that get played and replayed in the marriage debate, this one is the worst. For two reasons: First, because it is untrue. Marriage was not created to hurt homosexuals or enshrine bigotry in law. It did not become a universal human institution as an expression of animus. The core of marriage has always and everywhere been the pairing of a man and a woman because no other arrangement can do what marriage does: produce the next generation, bind men to the women who bear their children, and give boys and girls the mothers and fathers they need.
The second reason that the "only-a-hater-could-oppose-gay-marriage" meme is so objectionable is its destructiveness. It breeds resentment between parties who should be seeking common ground. It causes pain to gays and lesbians by encouraging them to believe that they are hated by most of their fellow citizens. And it promotes the poisonous idea that those who defend the traditional definition of marriage are moral cripples.
If the price of opposing unisex marriage is to be labeled a homophobe, many opponents will keep their opinions to themselves. The New York Times reported a few years ago on three scholars – "respected Protestant theologians well known for their work on religion and ethics" – who had been asked to take part in a TV program on same-sex unions and the church. These were not hardliners – one of the scholars, for instance, endorsed civil unions – but they shared the belief that Christian clergy should not bless homosexual marriage. All three refused to go on the air, afraid of being "pegged as antigay and anti-compassion." They wouldn't let the Times identify them by name; one worried openly about his family, which he said had "felt the heat" for his previous statements.
Yes – if your goal is to silence an opponent, playing the hate card can be an effective tactic. But it is illiberal and crude, unworthy of people who style themselves "progressive."
None of this is meant to downplay the emotional importance that same-sex marriage has taken on for many gays and lesbians. It holds out the promise of "normalcy," of the kind of ordinariness that heterosexuals take for granted. In America today no one needs a marriage license to form a lifelong union with a partner of the same sex. Gays and lesbians already have that right. What they don't have is the official stamp of approval that would establish, in Shelby Steele's words, "the fundamental innocuousness of homosexuality itself."
For reasons I have explored in other columns, I think same-sex marriage is bad public policy, especially when it is imposed by judicial decree. But at the level of ordinary human feeling, I can well understand the yearning for acceptance that drives the gay marriage movement.
"People say, 'It's just a piece of paper, what does it matter?"' Judi Burgess, who married her partner on the day lesbian marriage became lawful in Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe. "I used to say that. But it validates your relationship in a way I didn't think was important before. You're a complete person, just like everyone else who falls in love and gets married."
Homosexuality will never be "just like" heterosexuality, and that isn't something marriage can change. But you don't have to be heterosexual to want to fall in love and get married. And you don't have to support same-sex marriage to congratulate Burgess and her spouse, and all the other couples who have tied the knot. The policy debate rages on, but that's no reason to be inhuman.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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