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David Kirp Headshot

Will Gay Marriage Rescue a Shaky Institution?

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I recently returned from a glorious gay wedding -- the fifth that I've been invited to this summer, more than at any time since my twenties. What makes these occasions so special is that the couples tying the knot have been together for years, sometimes decades. Only now, though, can they legally wed, and they're out-of-their-minds happy. Something that many gay people never dreamed would happen has become a fact of life in much of the country, and gay couples are lining up to take out marriage licenses.

As a gay man, I've been a reluctant guest at many bride-and-groom nuptials. However genuinely gay-friendly the couple may be, there's no room in the conventional heterosexual script for me. To borrow an ugly but useful sociological term, they are implicitly hetero-normative events (bachelor parties are even worse). While I can be a member of the wedding party, the law has said I cannot be the groom.

That recent wedding was held in the pastoral precincts of West Marin, an hour's drive and a social light year removed from San Francisco. The couple, Scott Shafer, a host and correspondent for the local public radio station, and John Kennedy, a lawyer with the San Francisco City attorney's office, had met thirteen years earlier, playing water polo for the San Francisco Tsunami.

Something old, something new, something borrowed -- and something lavender -- because these weddings are such a recent phenomenon, there are no rules that must be followed. Every lesbian and gay couple gets to write its own script, and they're invariably a mix of the traditional and the invented -- two husbands or two wives or two spouses, a clergyman or City Hall and, almost always, Champagne and a wedding cake. At Scott and John's ceremony, John's father escorted his son down the aisle, and Scott's sister and brother squired him.

The ceremony itself was what social scientists call a "proof of concept," an explanation of why gays care so passionately about the right to wed -- and why "civil union" doesn't suffice. Ron Flynn, a lawyer who works with John and who participated in the California gay marriage case, recalled the testimony of Kris Perry, the lead plaintiff. Kris had been with her partner of seventeen years and was mom to four boys. For her, as for many of the witnesses, the ban had exacted a psychological toll. She knew that she couldn't get married, and deep down she worried that she was inferior goods. "If the marriage ban were undone and kids like me growing up right now could never know what this felt like, then their entire lives would be on a higher arc," Kris said. "They would live with a higher sense of themselves that would improve the quality of their entire life."

In a famous study conducted more than six decades ago, young black children, when presented with two dolls -- one was white with yellow hair, the other was brown with black hair -- and asked which was the prettiest and the nicest, almost always picked the white doll. Those kids had internalized the message that they were inferior. "Separate can never be equal," said a unanimous Supreme Court in the landmark School Segregation Cases. The Court cited the doll experiments as proof that segregation generated "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone." Kris Perry was describing the same kind of blow-to-the-gut impact, and just as "separate" cannot never be "equal," "civil union" cannot substitute for marriage.

Amid the popping of champagne corks, the toasts were by turns hilarious and poignant. Al Davidoff, who has known Scott since second grade -- "we were so into politics that we did our own phone poll when we were ten years old" -- recalled that Scott couldn't have been openly gay and survived in their blue-collar Buffalo high school. "I'm sure the same was true for John as well. It's amazing that they emerged whole."

There was a gaggle of kids at the party, children of the grooms' brothers and sisters, youngsters who knew Scott and John as uncles, or even more, and several gave their own testimonials. "Scott is not a father figure, he's my father," said Sonya Cecchetti Javits, now off to college. Scott has spent lots of time with Sonya and her brother Tony since they were toddlers, and after Tony got off a few zingers, his tone abruptly switched. "I love Scott so much," he said, his voice cracking.

Kai, the son of an Anglo dad and a Chinese mom, at whose home the wedding was taking place, put the event in historical context. Because of laws that prohibited interracial marriages, "fifty years ago my parents' marriage would have been illegal. That's hard to imagine today. Now, at last, your marriage is also legal."

Opponents of marriage equality fume that allowing homosexuals to tie the knot makes a mockery of the institution of marriage. Ironically, just the opposite may turn out to be true -- because marriage has become so highly prized among gays and lesbians, legalizing it may wind up breathing new life into this shaky institution. We'll find out if -- most likely, when -- the Supreme Court weighs in, against homophobia and on the side of marriage equality.