A Marginal Marriage

While I’ve always been a supporter of marriage equality, I’ve never paid much regard to the issue until recently. I hold the belief that marriage in its essence is a peculiar institution and wondered why a simple state-issued certificate could have such profound effects on people. What if someone simply didn’t want to be married? That person would have higher taxes, different legal protections and more interestingly – that person would have a different social status. Throughout the history of humankind, marriage has become an institution by which people establish themselves – a kind of structural achievement in the lives of many.

Yet, marriage has only been inclusive to gender binary relationships – a distinction that excludes a minority of people. The idea of legal unions between people of the same sex has not surprisingly caused much debate – and attitudes and laws are slowly changing.

On Tuesday Dec. 2, the New York State Senate brought the state’s marriage equality bill to the floor for the first time. After a month of delay, the special session, called by Gov. David Paterson, saw a mix of emotion and politics. The bill failed by a margin of 38-24 – delivering a crush to gay rights advocates statewide, as well as across the nation. A part of me even wishes that Paterson hadn’t pushed this bill so forcefully, knowing that there wasn’t a solid chance for a win. Now it only furthers the argument that America simply isn’t ready for marriage equality.

The marriage bill had passed twice in the New York State Assembly. Each of those times the bill was denied debate in the then-Republican controlled Senate. This week’s special session saw the Assembly approve the bill a third time on Monday night, so it can move onto the Senate on Tuesday, where all Senate Republicans and eight Democrats voted against it.

As I watched the live feed of the session, I felt a mixture of emotions. As the bill failed, I felt disappointed, but not wholly surprised. Yet it was the testimonies that a number of senators gave before the vote that truly moved me and offered me hope that someday all of these wishes will be realities.

As fellow Staten Islander Senator Diane J. Savino gave her impassioned, articulate seven-minute speech, she touched on how loving, committed individuals should be afforded the same rights as their neighbors.

“We have nothing to fear from love and commitment,” she said. “…I vote aye.”

Along came the sexual revolution of the 1960s and everything changed – not only for women, but for gays and lesbians as well. Since that time, the visibility of gay men and women has increased, mainly aided by the media. And here developed the modern-day idea of gay marriage. Not to say that there hasn’t been historical evidence of gay unions throughout time – but present-day societies had never extended marriage to include people of the same sex.

So why should it now? Although always sympathetic toward my community, I had for some time eschewed the idea of marriage altogether. I would wonder, “Why was it that gay people wanted to strangely conform to be the people they inherently were not?” I rejected the idea that those against gay marriage were homophobic and I thought there were much more relevant equality-based issues that could be tackled first. There is still hate crime across the country, gay people are prevented from adopting children in a number of states and the military still does not allow gays to serve openly – but gay rights activists had put marriage on a pedestal, as if it would solve all the other woes.

And it’s not as though the larger society presents much support for the idea either. A 2008 Pew Research Center Poll found that only 38 percent of respondents favored legal gay marriage, while 49 percent opposed it.

But something changed. I began to see the depth of what will become, in history, one of America’s most striking culture wars. It wasn’t that I started believing in the institution of marriage itself, but rather the legal benefits and protections that a marriage certificate holds in Western society, and that the only way to get those benefits was via a long-established system already in place. If consenting opposite-sex couples could ensure security for their union, their home, their children and their assets, then why couldn’t consenting same-sex couples? The very foundation of the gay marriage argument, to me, is that yes, gay marriage may seem “new,” but it is the only way to get what is needed. There is no way to re-frame the system that already exists – it can only be expanded and extended.

The issue of gay marriage is one of particular importance in a number of gay rights issues for a number of reasons. If gay relationships are not recognized then, more deeply, they are not valued and gay people are left feeling illegitimate. If society cannot address the cries of a tax-paying minority who call this country home, then what are young gay men and women supposed to think of their futures?

Gay men and women get frustrated with losses like Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which repealed and banned gay marriage; and with Question 1 in Maine in this year’s election, which brought the state back to domestic partnerships; and most recently with the loss in the New York Legislature. With marriage equality having been legalized by seven states, it is legal in only four (five come January 2010) while banned either constitutionally or statutorily in another 40, it seems like a long way to go. And it is.

There are generational and regional differences. A Columbia University study found that the majority of 18 to 25-year-olds favored gay marriage. In Iowa, a state with lower same-sex marriage support, but where a court decision had extended marriage to gays, an April 2009 Hawkeye Poll found that 60 percent of 18 to 30-year-old Iowans supported gay marriage. Generally, New England states and New York poll above 50 percent in favor of marriage equality, with support lowest in the South.

But ultimately, what one citizen thinks is right for another, shouldn’t dictate how equality is realized. The majority does not always have minority issues at hand. Gay men and women must depend on a legal system dominated by a majority and for that reason patience should be exercised. Every step towards equality is one step closer to the goals set ahead. It is proper not to react harshly or close-mindedly to setbacks, because that’s just what this fight is against. I’m certain time will embrace the idea of inclusiveness.

Steven Casale

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