Symbols are the greatest driving force behind human behavior. Throughout history, entire cultures, nations and races of people have chosen to die rather than surrender their symbols, even when those symbols were embodied merely in a single word.
In the movement to legalize same-sex marriages in the United States, it often seems that the fight comes down to disagreement over a symbol - over the meaning of the word "marriage." And in fighting to protect that symbol, the religious right has proven a formidable and unwavering foe. Their recent victory in delaying the repeal of California's Proposition 8 is persuasive evidence.
A Step Back
Since the same-sex marriage movement began in earnest some 40 years ago, religious leaders have prevented all but five states and the District of Columbia from making it legal, and it took nearly 30 years for the first state to do so, in 2003. They have helped defeat similar bills in every state that has put it to popular vote.
If anything, the same-sex marriage movement appears to have lost substantial ground. In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage specifically as the union of a man and a woman. Meanwhile, thirty states have implemented constitutional amendments barring the recognition of same-sex marriages.
Now, in California, two years and $80 million later (the amount spent by both sides to fight the issue) - having been implemented and repealed several times already - the Proposition 8 gay marriage ban remains as contentious as ever. Technically repealed recently -- making gay marriages legal again -- the religious right quickly won another stay until December, so that same-sex marriages remain illegal. But there's no guarantee the amendment will ever be repealed, and even if it is, that it won't be enforced again down the road. The religious right has vowed to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if it has to. And as it has proven repeatedly, it has the financial resources, the determination, and the absolute conviction in its beliefs to succeed.
A Word of Warning
But could same-sex marriage proponents be fighting on the wrong front? These groups seek the more than 1000 federal benefits for same-sex marriages that are automatically accorded opposite-sex couples, and view the religious right as their mortal enemy. Yet, religious leaders and social conservatives have repeatedly insisted that they have no objection to gays and lesbian partners enjoying the same legal rights as married spouses. They just don't want them to call their relationship a "marriage."
"It's about restoring the traditional definition of marriage," says Ron Prentice, chairman of ProtectMarriage, the official proponent of Proposition 8.
"The Church cannot approve of redefining marriage," which is intended "to nurture and support new life," say U.S. Catholic bishops. But they assert that all people, including gays, are "holy," regardless of their sexual orientations, and must be accepted "with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."
It would seem that they can't make it any clearer that they're only asking for gays to use another word other than "marriage" to describe what they're after. Yet same-sex marriage proponents refuse to do so, and, rather, dig their heels in deeper, and demand nothing less than a legal redefinition of the word.
A Double Negative
Gay marriage supporters would say that the fight isn't that simple. They point to the hypocrisy of religious leaders and organizations like ProtectMarriage, whose court arguments are really a thinly veil attack on the gay lifestyle. In courts, religious organizations summon up vast volumes of dubious data to "prove" redefining the word marriage will destroy the fabric of society and allow gays to run wild in the streets and in the classrooms. However, these same organizations drop all pretenses to tolerance in their churches, where they whip their followers into a frenzy, warning that, should gays be allowed to marry, gay teachers will turn their children into homosexuals and society will devolve into the new Sodom and Gomorrah.
But why not take religious opposition at face value and simply use a different word? Wouldn't that circumvent the churches' objections in courts, where the fight really belongs? Or at least it would call the churches' bluff and force them to admit that, yes, they actually consider gays to be damned, and that's why they so adamantly oppose the legal sanctioning of their fornication, no matter what word they call it?
Instead, gay marriage proponents -- and even the judges -- repeatedly take the bait, and bent themselves all out of shape debating the meaning of the word "marriage," with proponents offering equally shaky reasoning as to why changing the definition won't destroy our social and cultural values. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the Herculean task of trying to change prevailing public attitudes -- which is what they would need to do to succeed -- rather than staying focused on their mission, which is to change the law.
In calling for the repeal of Proposition 8 last week, for example, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker argued, "Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions. Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples have happy, satisfying relationships and form deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners."
But why should the legalization of same-sex marriages be based on whether or not two consenting adults are capable of living together happily ever after? It's not a prerequisite for heterosexual marriages. In fact, using such an argument, it makes more sense to repeal heterosexual marriages, since more than half of all opposite-sex marriages appear to end in acrimonious, financially ruinous, and psychically devastating divorce (see: Mel Gibson). More to the point, it is not even a legal argument, but purely hearsay. It's the kind of logic that leaves the door wide open for religious opponents to argue against the validity of the statement -- which they do with unrelenting fury, and nearly flawless success.
Certainly, the church's argument is fundamentally hypocritical, so it is temptingly easy to get drawn into a futile debate with them -- and perhaps that's why same-sex proponents continue to do so. For example, the church insists that marriage between two people is only valid if the two partners can procreate, or "nurture and support new life." Yet, it has no qualms with blessing and accepting marriages where the man or woman is physically incapable of having children, thereby being incapable of supporting new life. What is the different between such childless marriages and that of same-sex marriages, where the partners are also physically incapable of having children?
And this may be at the core of the LGBT groups' inability to make consistent headway in the legal system. In attacking the double standard in the church, they validate the church's attack on them. In doing so, they unfortunately confuse the public - and the church plays up the confusion, convincing the public that if they were to grant gays the complex array of legal benefits they seek, it would be at the expense of "sullying" the "purity" of the religious, cultural and symbolic meaning of the word "marriage." That's a position the general public adamantly refuses to be put in, and a choice they stubbornly refuse to make.
A Rose by Any Other Name
As a sign of progress in changing public attitudes, same-sex marriage proponents point to surveys showing increasing public support for gay marriages, with some surveys finding a slim majority in their favor -- the first time in history. However, a careful review of these surveys reveals that most people actually didn't have a problem with same sex couples receiving legal recognition; they just balked at supporting any constitutional amendment that implicitly sought to redefine the word "marriage."
This explains California's Field Poll, taken in May 2008, which found that 51% of the residents supported same-sex marriages; yet later that year they approved Proposition 8, banning gay marriages. Last year, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 49% of Americans favor gay marriages, up 10% from three years earlier. However, in the past year, gay marriage bills have been defeated in all 31 states that put it up to popular vote.
Perhaps it is time that same-sex marriage proponents accepted that, after decades of frustration, they need to take a new route. They must strike the word "marriage" from every single document they introduce in court, as well as statements they make to the media, which are filtered, sometimes incorrectly, to the public. At the same time, too, they should demand that, since the church treats "marriage" as a religious word with a special, narrowly defined meaning to them, the U.S. government must therefore strike this "religious" word from all its laws, as it violates separation of church and state principles. All U.S. laws must now use a generic, non-religious, alternative term for "marriage" that offends no one and doesn't favor one group over another.
As long as same-sex marriage proponents continue to fight for their rights using the word "marriage," their challenges will remain almost insurmountable, because they fight a symbol, not a law. If the U.S. constitution is founded upon the separation of church and state, they should be ignoring the church and attacking the state. Of course, religious leaders will continue to throw up formidable roadblocks, but their arguments will be substantially weakened. The public, meanwhile, will feel less confused about their demands and therefore less reluctant to grant them.
Stripped of the convoluted arguments of both sides, at the fundamental core of the debate, the question is really whether the U.S. Government can refuse to recognize a contract drawn up by two consenting adults of legal age -- their sex is irrelevant -- that in terms of their expectations of each other and legal recognition, precisely mirrors what is currently recognized as a marriage contract. Call the contract what you will.
Editor's note: This article was modified from its original form and includes some reformatting and editing for clarity.