What We’ve Gained—and What We’ve Lost

May 10, 2012

If anyone didn't already know that the legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable, President Obama's dramatic announcement that he supports it should settle the matter. That makes this a good time to appreciate what those of us who favor the expansion of rights as a general principle have gained -- and what we've lost.

There was something tragicomic about Obama's May 9 announcement, coming as it did as a reactive response to Vice President Biden's impulsive endorsement of same-sex marriage on a Sunday morning talk show. The White House spent two days waffling before Obama finally went on TV. His views had "evolved" into favoring same-sex marriage some months back, the official story goes; he'd been planning to disclose that sometime before the Democratic Convention, but hadn't yet chosen a date. "I've been meaning to mention this," the subtext seems to run, "and now that Veep's shot his mouth off I suppose I might as well do it today." Whatever else one might say about this, it falls short of the image of proactive leadership most Obama supporters might have preferred.

What else might one say about Obama's statement? From a secular humanist standpoint, it's surely welcome. As several pundits have noted, no expansion of rights championed by a sitting president has ever failed to become the law of the land. Still, as LGBT-rights activists -- and other supporters of expanding individual rights -- celebrate, we shouldn't lose sight of what has been lost. (What follows draws from my August/September 2009 FI op-ed "Two Cheers for Same-Sex Marriage.")

Fifteen years ago, before the idea that same-sex marriage might be attainable re-directed LGBT activism, the target toward which most LGBT activists strove was civil unions. Civil unions had a lot to recommend them. In time, they would probably confer most or all of the same rights granted by traditional matrimony in such areas as parental rights, sickroom visitation, healthcare decision-making, community property, the right to inherit, and so on. What secular humanists especially liked about civil unions was that they would be a wholly new instiution, conceived entirely within the domain of secular law. They'd be free of matrimony's tangled roots as both a legal and a religious construct, and they'd be free of matrimony's historical baggage as an institution for transferring what amounted to ownership of the bride from her father to her husband. In twenty or twenty-five years, the thinking went, a robust form of civil union would be legal for same-sex couples across the land.

What was wrong with that vision? Today, many activists view civil unions as insufficient, a second-class "gay ghetto" institution that still separates same-sex couples from more favored opposite-sex couples. But don't judge so quickly. Let's jump back to fifteen years ago, and consider what many civil-union supporters (myself included) expected to happen next. Once robust civil unions were the law of the land for same-sex couples, this thinking went, the next step would be legal activism by opposite-sex couples seeking a way to give their unions the protection of law without having to resort to traditional matrimony with all its negatives. Once that was achieved, civil union would no longer be a gay-ghetto phenomenon. Most importantly, the centuries-long monopoly held by traditional matrimony as the only way to legally authenticate a couple's commitment would have been broken. At long last there would be a new, wholly secular, historically unencumbered way for any couple, gay or straight, to seal their shared commitment.

That's what we've lost.

As I see things, there are two ways to view the now (almost certainly) inevitable triumph of same-sex marriage. One: It's a welcome expansion of human rights, following in the footsteps of woman suffrage, the legalization of interracial marriage, and the civil rights movement. And it is, in spades. But here comes Two: It's a regrettable triumph for traditional matrimony, whose oppressive monopoly stands unscathed. Ironically, cultural conservatives should probably applaud same-sex marriage. The LGBT movement was the only social reform movement powerful enough to have shattered matrimony's monopoly, and its abrupt shift from seeking civil unions to seeking same-sex marriage turned LGBT activists from matrimony's most threatening enemies into its newest supporters.

What really happened over the last decade and a half? We've moved to the threshold of legal same-sex marriage across the country, another triumph for rights-seeking activism. But traditional matrimony, that hoary old church-entwined man-buys-woman institution, has ducked a bullet. And those of us, gay and straight, who wanted most of all to undermine matrimony's monopoly have been left behind. That's what we've gained, and what we've lost.