Before winter break, I was talking with a friend, when the issue of same-sex marriage came up. We talked about the various ballot measures banning it until, at one point, we both sighed. She said, "we should just get government out of marriage entirely -- everyone should just get civil unions." This has become an increasingly popular opinion among many socially liberal people. They seem to believe that by changing the name of the government-recognized institution, we will somehow be closer to equality, or that opposition to marriage equality will disappear.
Neither of these things would happen. In fact, I believe that abandoning the term "marriage" or jettisoning government involvement in marriage entirely would in fact be a step backwards.
Between 1954 and 1970, as southern states faced the prospect of having to integrate its public schools, many of them instead chose to close them. (They, instead, offered families vouchers for private institutions which were permitted to discriminate.) The problem with segregation, we should remember, was not simply that black schools were often underfunded, but also that segregation served as a badge of inferiority for African-Americans.
In important ways, the situation today, with regard to marriage, is analogous. There is increasing pressure for the implementation of marriage equality: an increasing number of states are granting same-sex marriages, there is a large and growing segment of the population that supports marriage equality, and courts have become more willing to strike down discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Just as southern states faced the prospect of integration, Americans now face the possibility of full marriage equality. Furthermore, just as segregation served as a badge of inferiority for African-Americans, the refusal to permit same-sex marriages is undoubtedly marks same-sex couples (and, by extension, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals) as deemed inferior by society.
So why is marriage so important? Because marriage has historically carried the stamp of society's approval. It sends a message not just to those lesbian, gay, or bisexual people who want to get married now, but to LGB youth everywhere. The achievement of marriage equality would send a message to gay youth that they are, in fact, welcome in society and that marriage and love and stability are all things that are not reserved only for heterosexuals, but are a possibility for them too.
I am not saying that those who want to separate government from marriage are homophobic. I do believe, however, that if they achieved that goal, life would be harder for all lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. The elimination of the possibility of the term "marriage" applying to gay couples on a federal level would send a devastating message -- much in the same way that the South's abandonment of its public school system sent a devastating message to African-Americans. Eliminating civil marriage would do more than force same-sex couples to rely on (often homophobic) religious institutions in order to get married: rather, it would withdraw the prospect of at last removing society's stigma.