For better or worse, there isn’t always magic in marriage, but it does involve a certain alchemy. Love, sex, romance, friendship, children, family, property, money, health, death, taxes, work, religion: Some or all of these constituent parts are bundled into a single package, which then, rather impressively, holds everything together–until it breaks apart. As a result, marriage is a battleground for a whole roiling mass of distinct yet interconnected issues.

This is especially clear in the national debate over same-sex marriage, which is not just about evolving “family values” but, as the Rev. Howard Moody argues here, the way church and state vie for authority over our intimate lives. Whether because of its potency as a symbol or simply its centrality in social life, one thing can be said about marriage: It is a subject on which everyone has an opinion. So it seemed a perfect subject for a special issue, and this June-season of weddings, gay and otherwise-a ripe moment for it. No sooner were a few tentative feelers put out soliciting replies to our query, “Can Marriage Be Saved?” than the contributions to the forum began pouring in-by turns angry, measured, ecstatic and amused, but all inspired by a thirst for frank discussion of marriage, both as it is structured and mythologized and as it is lived.

Such a range of perspectives is urgently needed in the gay-marriage debate, which is typically conducted in pro/con format. The “pro” picture often leaves the impression that gays and lesbians just want a place at the altar-neither mining the once-robust queer and feminist critique of marriage nor probing the fractious state of the marital union. “Ironically,” notes Judith Stacey, “feminists and gay liberationists find ourselves defending gay marriage against the conservative backlash.” Though Donna Minkowitz writes here of her desire to marry, and Catharine Stimpson recounts the reasons she’d prefer to abstain, their essays share a wariness about what gays and lesbians may be marrying into–“a moralistic and ridiculously unitary vision of the way people ought to live,” as Minkowitz puts it.

Exactly such a vision is now supported by public policy, as Sharon Lerner reveals in her analysis of the Bush Administration’s vaunted marriage-promotion initiative aimed at low-income populations. Absent coercive federal policy, young, white, professional women are pressured to get hitched on a “timetable” by marriage rules repeated ad nauseum in popular culture and self-help books, as Hillary Frey reports. Marriage promotion of another sort occurs nightly on reality TV shows like The Bachelor and Average Joe, where, Judith Halberstam writes, marriage has “become a game show,” and a telegenic spouse just one more prize. “Heterosexuality never looked so fragile,” she concludes. By contrast, gay protest weddings in New Paltz, San Francisco and dozens of other municipalities, described here by Alisa Solomon, follow the “enduring, endearing narrative” of two lovers overcoming obstacles to wed. Like the larger debate over gay marriage, these ceremonies hold “both radical and depoliticizing potential.” Here’s hoping the former prevails.

Research support was provided by the Harvey Milk Fund of The Nation Institute.