It became official yesterday. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down by the Supreme Court, and the federal government must now recognize same-sex marriages in states and jurisdictions where they are legal. This means that all same-sex couples married in those states become eligible for the full panoply of federal rights accorded to any other married couple. Additionally, California’s Proposition 8 has not been upheld. In this case, the ruling was on a narrower basis and stated that the plaintiffs did not have standing, or the right to appeal, the lower court’s ruling invalidating Prop. 8. Although the DOMA ruling was much broader, both cases are great victories for gay rights, which are also human rights. It will take a while still, however, before same-sex couples in California are allowed to marry, as the Attorney General has instructed that the injunction issued by the Ninth Circuit as part of the appeal process is still in force, and no marriages can be performed until that order has been rescinded. In all likelihood, it appears as though this could take as much as a month to accomplish.
These are, in essence, the legal facts of the rulings. More detail will undoubtedly be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead, but the essence of each ruling is that millions of people who have had their civil rights abridged, or denied outright, now have them upheld.
Aside from the legalities involved, however, what does this mean on a more personal, a more human level? My partner and I, for example, have been together for over 33 years, and we feel as “married” as any other couple who has lived together for that long under the approbation of the law. We have had a Domestic Partnership for more than 13 years, specifically since Feb. 16th, 2000, which guarantees legal rights within California, as much as it is also clear that such a document has never had the same moral or cultural impact as does marriage.
But as enormous as these rulings undoubtedly are, neither does this mean that the debate over same-sex marriage is over in this country. All we have to do is to glance even fleetingly at Justice Scalia’s blistering dissent on the DOMA ruling to see some of the language still being used. He referred to that ruling, for example, as “legal argle-bargle” (a new term to me, I have to admit, but apparently a Cockney expression referring to energetic, but worthless comments). He further goes on to claim that Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, that the effect of DOMA was “to demean those persons who are in lawful same-sex marriages,” amounts to “an accusation which demeans this institution” (i.e. the Supreme Court). He continues by going on to say that Wednesday’s decision was, in fact, inevitable once the court had earlier sanctioned “homosexual sodomy.”
Homosexual sodomy: do we not have here an example par excellence of super-charged moralizing? But this is fairly typical of the superior, self-righteous, moralistic language used by many conservatives in regard to gay marriage and to gay people generally. It is, as I see it, a way of both demeaning and minimizing loving relationships between two women, or two men, and at the same time attempting to reduce them to nothing more than sexual activity, and despised sexual activity at that. How many straight marriages, to take the opposite point of view, have we heard so reduced to mere “legalized sex”? If we do not do so with regard to men and women in marriages, and if instead we accord to them the full range of human emotion, to include love and mutual dedication and commitment, as well as sex (let us not forget), then why would a sitting justice of the Supreme Court of the United States think it legitimate to do so in regard to two women, or two men?
In one sense, this seems to me to be as much at the heart of today’s decisions as do all of the also critical legal and economic issues at stake. What I mean is that we are now entering into the realm of the deeply personal, the emotional, the world of caring, of warmth, of closeness, of mutual respect and profound, enduring, even magical togetherness. Not that marriage is always easy or even fun! Anyone who has ever lived with another human being for a considerable length of time knows that each can get on the other’s nerves, that there will be inevitable disagreements and misunderstandings. As with anything truly worth its salt, though, marriage takes work, it takes persistence, and determination, and dedication, and, well, yes, it takes love. Love is, in fact, the glue that holds it, that binds two people together, the fact that they love each other and that they are willing to put up with each others oddities and quirks and faults, as well as enjoy all of the wonderful qualities which, we assume, drew them together in the first place.
This is what gay marriage is all about, just as it is with regard to heterosexual marriage. Sex, while an important and even a delightful part of any marriage, is not its sole definition. Gay marriages, therefore, are not about “homosexual sodomy,” anymore than straight marriages are about heterosexual vaginal sex. And to so reduce either to its mere sexual component truly does demean the deeper, and frankly sometimes more satisfying other meanings that come with the lifetime commitment of two human beings to each other.
So, will my partner and I become husband and husband, spouses under the law, once California finally allows us to do so? That is a decision which we will talk about in the days to come. As I have already alluded to, each of as has repeatedly said that we already “feel married.” So, whether or not we deem it necessary to formalize those feelings in a legal ceremony will be something we will decide, as much as it looks as though there will be benefits to doing so, not least of which would be that we would no longer have to pay extra federal taxes.
I would be less than honest, too, if I did not admit that each of us has felt that traditional marriage isn’t necessarily all that grand of a thing to strive for. How many marriages have we all seen, for example, that barely work, where the couple in question seem merely to tolerate each other, or who stay together out of simple inertia, or some imagined fear of loneliness or of going-it-alone? That is not our relationship, but then of course neither is it necessarily the description of every traditional marriage. Indeed, marriages, like all things human, come in both the good and the not-so-good variety.
Personally, I don’t even like the term “same-sex marriage.” Again, the emphasis there seems to me to be only on the sex, rather than on the huge gamut of human feelings and emotions and needs and hopes and aspirations, all of which intertwine and intermingle into the mystery of two individuals living together and cherishing each other.
I would rather call it love, as simple and as corny as that may sound. Because love is what draws two people together in the first place, of whatever gender, and it is what keeps them together through all of the difficulties and tests and challenges life may throw at them. Justice Scalia, and some of his supporters, may not get that, but this is what marriage is all about. This is why two people ought to live together. And this, in the end, is why they should marry.