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Are We Ready for a Real National Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage?

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 7:29 pm

A panel of judges one rung below the Supreme Court has ruled that California cannot deny equality in marriage to gays and lesbians. In the next few days, Washington state is expected to become the seventh state to license same-sex marriages, and the fourth to do so by legislative action rather than judicial decision. Maryland and New Jersey are moving in the same direction.

Just in time for the 2012 elections, same-sex marriage has reemerged onto the political agenda. Are we ready for a thoughtful national conversation on the matter? Judging from the presidential campaign, the answer is not encouraging. Left to politicians and the media, marriage equality has been sucked into the same vortex of cynicism, soundbites, and triviality as almost every other issue in our national politics.

Marriage is a fundamental civil right, and decisions by courts and legislatures on the matter affect tens of thousands of real human beings and their families. Americans are ready for a passionate yet honest and well-informed debate about same-sex marriage. They should demand more than timid pablum from Democrats and wedge-issue demagoguery from Republicans.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today said California cannot set up a parallel status of "domestic partnership" -- one that gives same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples but refuses to call it "marriage." Withholding the dignity and social significance of the term "marriage" serves no purpose but to demean gay and lesbian relationships. "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, "but to the couple desiring to enter a committed lifelong relationship, a marriage by the name of 'registered domestic partnership' does not." This is a victory for same-sex couples in California. But by ruling narrowly, the court said same-sex marriage remains an issue that should be decided state by state.

Polls now find that majorities of Americans support marriage equality, and there are already close to 100,000 legally married same-sex couples in the United States. Yet in the Republican presidential campaign, the issue is still discussed as an abstraction.

Mitt Romney has said same-sex marriage would mean discarding "3,000 years of human history." But history actually demonstrates that the legal and cultural meanings of marriage have been dynamic and contested. This is something that Romney -- a Mormon whose great-grandfather fled to Mexico so he could practice polygamy and who eventually took five wives -- ought to acknowledge.

Newt Gingrich's phony sanctimony is worse. The media had a few days of fun after one of his ex-wives revealed that he had sought an open marriage. But I never heard any prominent journalist confront him over his statement two weeks earlier that gays and lesbians are unworthy of marriage because marriage is a "sacrament" (a label he repeated three times in the space of a minute).

All the GOP candidates except Ron Paul support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Rick Santorum has said he would actually nullify all existing same-sex marriages. Imagine the hellish consequences of this idea for such couples' lives, children, and property. Yet the cruelness and depravity of Santorum's suggestion -- that we're essentially talking about pretend marriages that aren't entitled to the same dignity and respect as straight people's relationships -- caused barely a ripple outside progressive blogs and gay-oriented Twitter feeds.

Over on the Democratic side, President Obama touts his support for "civil unions" -- the exact kind of separate-but-equal status the Court of Appeals has now rejected. What about actual marriage? Obama continues to play coy, claiming that his position is still "evolving." But Obama needs no tutoring on this issue -- for more than a decade, he taught advanced law students at the University of Chicago about the history of minority groups' quests for constitutional equality. His fence-straddling is a political calculation, and an increasingly tiresome one.

Simply put, our national politicians, along with the celebrity journalists who cover them, still don't seem to take same-sex marriage seriously. (Imagine if CNN's John King had called out Gingrich on his marriage hypocrisy in the specific, detailed way that Juan Williams had grilled him on race.) It's a reliable hot-button issue for cable hosts and partisan spin artists, but seldom are we reminded that real human lives and relationships are involved.

Marriage is a subject of profound importance, for both individuals and society. Whether decisions are ultimately made by courts or elected legislatures, the quest by gays and lesbians for legal equality in marriage deserves to be debated with seriousness, even gravity. We need a better national conversation than our politics and media have given us so far.