Marry Me a Little

In his new book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, journalist Jonathan Rauch argues that same-sex marriage is a social policy issue, and not about insurance benefits or sex. Rauch, a former Phoenician, swears that legally wed gays will strengthen the institution of marriage, because legal weddings support marriage -- and not domestic partnership or civil unions -- as an American tradition.

New Times: What's so wonderful about marriage?

Jonathan Rauch: An awful lot. Marriage is not just a piece of paper from the government or a contract that a couple of people make. It's the only promise that two people make to their community, and that their community makes to them. It doesn't just ratify an existing relationship, but fortifies and helps create a bond. It sustains a relationship and weaves a couple into their community.

NT: Not to mention the benefits.

Rauch: Oh, yeah. The 1,049 benefits married people get from the government. You know, I take issue with people who look at the best way to get benefits from marriage. That's a very shallow view of marriage. Having said that, I'll admit that they're not just benefits, they're the tools people need to keep a promise to each other. It's hard to look after someone in the hospital if you can't get into their room. Hard to confide in someone if you know they can be asked to testify against you in court. These aren't benefits, they're responsibilities.

NT: Why not change the policies that grant those "married" benefits, instead of seeking to be part of the institution that grants them?

Rauch: First of all, because the institution of marriage is a wonderful institution, one that a lot of gay people aspire to participate in and would enormously benefit from. Nothing else has the binding power of marriage. And all these other things that people talk about -- benefits, legal rights, and so on -- are good, but they're not the whole package. They're a unicycle instead of a bicycle. I say, "Accept no substitutes -- we shouldn't have to."

NT: But aren't gay people coveting a heterosexual institution?

Rauch: No. The notion that this is gay people aping straight people gives away the ball game, because it assumes that marriage is a heterosexual institution. If it is, then why are millions of gay couples building relationships that look so much like marriage? Not because they're out to imitate a custom, but because they're seeking something that fulfills a deep human need.

NT: Opponents of gay marriage keep talking about "the sanctity of marriage," as if gay people will somehow sully it by participating. Like marriage is a golden elevator, and gay people are the fart in that elevator.

Rauch: I wish I'd said that. On odd numbered days I try to understand where [the opponents] are coming from. Because it's not just about discrimination, per se, since some of them say that a civil union is okay, but gay marriage isn't. They seem to be saying that marriage is bound up in tradition, and gay participation would diminish that tradition. The toughest argument against gay marriage is that it's been fundamentally about a man and a woman, and if you mess with that, what might the consequences be? That's why I agree that it should be a state-by-state decision. As a gay person, that's a tough bullet to bite, because I want a marriage that's good all over the country. But I'm willing to settle, for two reasons: Because we'll get marriages that the country embraces and accepts, and not marriages that have been rammed down the throats of every citizen. And because trying it in a few places before taking it national is a good way to make sure we're not missing something.

NT: It's really about sex, isn't it? Most heterosexuals are so grossed out at the thought of same-gendered sex that they can't get past that.

Rauch: Well, the anti-gay marriage forces are a tremendously varied collation. But yes, there is no doubt that, for those who can't get beyond the sex, this is a referendum on homosexuality. All they see is sex.

NT: You wrote in a recent New York Times editorial that by opposing same-sex marriage, President Bush has established himself as the country's most prominent advocate of it.

Rauch: Right -- all the conservative arguments against same-sex marriage are really, on inspection, arguments for it. Social stability? Yes, gay marriage would provide that. Good for a couple's health and happiness? Absolutely. Better for children? Uh-huh. Twenty-nine percent of gay households have kids in them. Why would a conservative not want married parents for those kids?

NT: But it's not good for hetero-fascists. It's not good for Bible thumpers.

Rauch: Hetero-fascists? I don't know. I have a lot of hope for what you call Bible thumpers, because I think in 10 years churches will be leading the way on gay marriage. When you have Unitarian ministers jailed for performing commitment ceremonies, the churches are going to find a way to avoid that. Remember, the Bible also says, "Do unto others . . ."

NT: Why do so many people cite the Bible as the ultimate opposition of gay marriage? It's such a no-brainer -- gay people are looking for legal rights, not God's permission.

Rauch: Yes, but gay marriage is unique because it's a version of a civil institution that's been around since the 16th century, one that grew out of something that was deeply religious, and for many Americans still is. Most people still get married in church. The kind we want isn't just legal, it's the social marriage as well. When people look at the ring on your finger, they afford you the respect due someone who's made that kind of commitment. We want more than the legal right to marry. We want the social aspect -- the mothers crying in the first row at the ceremony; the gifts and the anniversaries and the colleagues asking after your husband or wife. I think we can have both.

NT: I'm having a hard time choosing my favorite opponent of gay marriage. It's a tie between Ronald Reagan, who divorced the mother of two of his children and had an affair with Nancy Reagan, who gave birth to their daughter seven months after their wedding; and Senator Bob Barr of Georgia, author of the Defense of Marriage Act, who has been married three times.

Rauch: Neither of these guys is right for you. Reagan did something heroic in 1978, when the California State Senate proposed a referendum that would have banned gays from teaching jobs. He was a likely presidential candidate, and gay people came to him and said, "Speak out against this," and he did, and the referendum failed. He was never anti-gay, and if he were in power today, he'd see the case for gay marriage. And Barr is a rare bird in Washington -- a politician who means what he says. He wrote the Defense of Marriage Act to prevent one state from deciding what's good for all states. When the amendment to ban marriage was proposed, he said, "We don't need it." He's a real civil libertarian, and we could use a few more of those.

NT: One of the most absurd arguments against allowing gays to marry -- to quote Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum -- is that it would lead to the legalization of incest, polygamy and bestiality.

Rauch: Yeah, the Pandora's Box argument. And the truth is that this isn't Pandora's Box, it's the lock on the box. Because gay marriage is the opposite of polygamy; it says the principle of monogamy should be universalized, not the principle of two or three or zero partners. It says one person, not one dog or cat or Volkswagen. It says you can marry one unrelated person.

NT: You're going against an old American tradition, Jon -- the tradition of prohibiting things because they're not appealing to the masses.

Rauch: The tyranny of the majority! Never underestimate the power of majority opinion to validate views. The good news is that opinion can swing very quickly. If you'd told me 10 years ago that we'd be having this serious discussion, with gay marriage licenses about to be issued in Massachusetts and straight ministers risking jail to perform gay marriage ceremonies, and only two-thirds of the country opposed to the issue, I'd have laughed. I think gay marriage will ultimately succeed. And its opponents believe that, too. That's why they're desperate to stop it. They know it will succeed, and they're scared.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela