03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Do We Want to Be Right, or Have Rights?

I'm a gay man who supports the right of consenting adults to enter into whatever relationship they'd like, including marriage. I have several married friends who took advantage of the pre-Prop 8 window. I love these men and respect their relationships. I volunteered in the campaign against Prop 8 and was disappointed by the results in Maine. But just because I believe gays should be able to marry if straights should doesn't mean I think marriage is a very good idea.

One advantage of same-sex love is that we are relatively unshackled by the expectations most heterosexuals are hard put to avoid. This doesn't necessarily mean we have better or longer relationships, just ones more likely to color outside the lines of societal expectations. The end result is that we have a lot to show the world in this department -- including (horrors!) arrangements that don't necessarily hew to models of monogamy, particularly among gay men. (We're not supposed to talk about it anymore, of course, but the nature of male sexuality does not change when you sign a marriage certificate. If you were a one-partner-man before you got hitched, you still are. If you weren't, you still aren't. We're just like straight men that way, except few heterosexuals since Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir even allow themselves to contemplate separating commitment and fidelity.)

But what have gay people done with this singular, "outside-the-box" legacy? Have we trail-blazed new legal frameworks recognizing non-traditional families and relationships? Have we led instead of followed? In a prodigious failure of imagination, we have instead decided to pursue for ourselves an institution with a success rate of a mere 50%. (And I use "success" advisedly. I bet you can count the couples married more than a decade that you think of as "happy" on a few fingers, if that.)

Despite this lousy track record, the state of being married is still held up as the ideal, and society confers status on those who conform to it. It's as if getting married is some kind of accomplishment, like getting a degree after years of school. No one even questions the premise that married people should have more rights or status than unmarried people in the first place. And they do. Ask any single mother or divorcee, particularly over 40. Within the gay community I'm noticing the same subtle fissure growing between the wed and unwed, as the words "my husband" are stamped with a legitimacy absent from "my boyfriend."

The divide will grow deeper when we get full marriage rights. This, by the way, is inevitable without the expenditure of millions of more dollars. It is simply a matter of demographic patience, as the young entering the voting pool replace the old leaving it.

Since time will win the marriage war, we don't have to keep losing the battles on the way. Our money and energy should be expended in the fights we can presently win, like the one we just did in Washington State. Our campaign there wasn't savvier than in Maine or California, but it didn't involve the word "marriage," except preceded by "Everything but." The haters and the ignorant spread the same nonsense on the airwaves, but the arguments seem to lack traction for that crucial 10% swing vote when the "M-word" is unattached from the idea of equal rights.

Every time I embark on this dissent I get accusing of defending the principle of "separate but equal." This was the legal theory advanced to justify segregation; the reason it was preposterous was that the economic resources accorded to blacks were so egregiously inferior to those accorded whites that separate could never be anything but unequal.

If "separate" was inherently "unequal" for civil unions, wouldn't we have seen gays in France and England up in arms over their supposed second class citizenship? By all accounts they seem perfectly content with their legal status. (Full Disclosure: my mother is French, and has always been slightly appalled by American weddings. "In France, we walk down to city hall and then go to a nice restaurant.")

What makes civil unions at present unequal is not their separateness, but the host of federal benefits conferred by marriage that even the best state domestic partnerships can't accord. So let's change that by calling Barack Obama's bluff on his stated support of civil unions. Let's also call the bluff of our electoral foes who proclaim they are not anti-gay, just pro-marriage. Deprive them of their most potent electoral argument.

Let them have their word and their failing institution. We can do much better.