What Difference Will Same-Sex Marriage Make?

What Difference Will Same-Sex Marriage Make?

What Difference Will Same-Sex Marriage Make?

Sooner or later, marriage equality will win. What happens to marriage then?


Protestors Alex Corona (C) and David Milligan (R), partners who say they wish to get married if the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned, rally in support of gay marriage in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, March 27, 2013. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

In his essay “Message in the Stars,” the American Presbyterian writer and theologian Frederick Buechner conducts a thought experiment. What if God decided to prove—dramatically, irrefutably and publicly—that God does exist by writing across the night sky. Buechner imagines the heavenly author arranging the stars to read—GOD IS—and the subsequent hope, terror, regret, joy and utter astonishment that such a message would bring. He fantasizes that God would write the message in all the different languages of the world, so that on any given night one might go outside, look up and see, in French, Mandarin or Arabic: GOD IS.

He invites us to envision the sense of relief that would come with the utter certainty that God exists. Then he imagines this:

Then the way that I would have it end might be this. I would have a child look up at the sky some night, just a plain, garden-variety child with perhaps a wad of bubble gum in his cheek…. and then I would have the child turn to his father, or maybe, with the crazy courage of childhood, I would have him turn to God himself, and the words that I would have him speak would be words to make the angels gasp. “So what if God exists?” he would say. “What difference does that make?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of “so what, what difference does that make?” in recent months, never more so than this week. As the Supreme Court prepared to hear challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and to Proposition 8, the substance of their eventual judgment seems less and less relevant. This Court may offer the watershed legal justification for marriage equality, or it may erect one final barrier to this bundle of civil rights for gay couples. But it no longer seems to matter much.

Marriage equality has won. Democrats are flocking to a pro-marriage position in the most rapid case of mass evolution in history. Virginia’s Mark Warner, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, Montana’s Max Baucus and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson are among the more than a dozen legislators who changed their minds and now express support for same-sex marriage. President Obama “evolved” and then so did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even Republican Rob Portman got on the marriage-equality bandwagon after his son came out to him. And conservatives unprepared to embrace full marriage equality are inching toward civil unions as the new default position.

These elected officials like to tell stories of resetting their inner moral compass after wrestling with ethical dilemmas and discovering compassion for gay friends and relatives. But it is hard to ignore the likely reality that their change of heart has been precipitated by the stunning change in opinion among Americans. Just days before the Court heard oral arguments, Pew reported that 70 percent of Americans born after 1980 support same-sex marriage. And though justice delayed is justice denied, whether the Roberts Court upholds or strikes down these particular provisions seems almost irrelevant given this cultural and political paradigm shift. Marriage equality, the stars seem to be telling us, is just a matter of time.

Those of us who have struggled as principals or allies to bring this moment into being are feeling a bit like the awe-struck citizens of Buechner’s story, standing with our mouths agape and hearts full of wonder as we look up at the sky and realize this is real. But soon the astonishment will give way to the question asked in Buechner’s text: What difference does that make? What do we believe marriage equality will do?

Marriage equality will extend a basic civil right and allow a broader swath of Americans to opt into the bundle of economic protections and cultural privileges associated with matrimony. But this year, which has seen such tremendous movement toward marriage equality, also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Surely progressives have not forgotten her key insight: that marriage is wholly inadequate to ensure public equality or personal fulfillment. If we are to move beyond mere jubilation at the message in the stars—MARRIAGE EQUALITY IS—and provide a deeper answer to the question of what difference it will make, advocates may have to shift their tactics fairly radically.  

The successful, pragmatic strategy of gay activists has been to assert that same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. Their argument is that there is no need to defend marriage against loving same-sex couples, because these couples don’t want to alter it; they just want to participate in it. But as we race to a victorious finish, it is time to begin forcefully articulating that, in fact, maybe we do want to change marriage—because while marriage should be a choice, it should not be an imperative. For decades, LGBTQ communities have generated new forms of family built on foundations of shared commitments, collective responsibilities, nonconjugal love and parental devotion not predicated on shared genetics. Shut out of social-normative options for making families, they queered the very idea of family. It would be tragic to allow marriage equality to destroy or marginalize the pioneering work of queer families who have taught us that family is more complicated and more fulfilling than traditional models of marriage can ever capture.

It is astonishing to be alive in this moment when marriage equality is written in the stars, but I hope we will be like the child who asks what difference it really makes. Because I suspect the goal of achieving this right is less about the ceremonies, the flowers, the love or even the economic benefits. I suspect the real goal is to achieve a more inclusive recognition of the authentic and enduring ways that we connect ourselves to one another, without needing the words “husband,” “wife” or even “spouse.” The difference we want this movement to make is bigger than that.

Laura Flanders ponders: What is about the marriage ceremony that makes a critic of the institution get teary-eyed? 

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