Sunday, a groundbreaking law took effect in the Netherlands that gives gay and lesbian couples the same civil marriage rights as the rest of Dutch citizens.
What the Netherlands seems to understand that no other nation in the world, including the United States, understands is that access to marriage is just like access to any other public institution. In the U.S., the indignity, expense and alienation of exclusion from full citizenship is no less agonizing for gays today than it was two generations ago for blacks, who were barred from full participation in the most basic institutions of public life. Like racial segregation, marriage exclusion is not about scarce resources but about the majority culture maintaining its sense of superiority.
Despite impressive gains in civil rights for gays and lesbians in recent years, Americans are only now beginning to grapple with the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, asking themselves what good reason there is for denying gays this fundamental human right. Currently, more than a third of Americans support allowing gay couples to wed.
But even those who regard themselves as progressive thinkers frequently view marriage as a separate issue, somehow impervious to change. As one opponent of allowing gays to marry recently put it, "It is not intolerant prejudice to insist that homosexual union cannot fit the bond of marriage, but would . . . flatten its procreativity and leave it flaccid."
This line of thinking leads even sympathizers to support, at best, an alternative arrangement that recognizes gay couples but leaves marriage for straights only, as if granting gay couples access to marriage would somehow take it away from heterosexuals. But marriage isn't like meting out the federal surplus; giving to some does not mean taking away from others.
Why, then, is marriage such contested terrain? Because, in an era when the purpose and fate of this besieged institution is far from clear, many people worry that expanding marriage to include same-sex unions would "trivialize" or "demean" an already fragile institution. Some claim that if we let gays marry, we will be forced to legalize incestuous, group or even inter-species marriages.
Because many people believe that homosexual unions are inherently immoral, unstable or unholy, they fear that equating gay unions with traditional marriages would undermine the sanctity of heterosexual bonds. They fear giving gays access to civil marriage might so radically alter its meaning that it would become unrecognizable to those who hold it dear. And since marriage is such a fundamental part of so many people's lives, making it more inclusive can seem like a threat to the very identity of heterosexuals.
Indeed, the struggle for marriage equality is about far more than tax benefits and hospital visitation rights. It's about more than sex and procreation--after all, we do not deny marriage rights to infertile, impotent or sexually inactive people, so long as they are heterosexual.
It is, rather, a struggle for gays to be acknowledged as full citizens and human beings, every bit as proud and as flawed and as strong and as fragile as straights. It's about a struggle to gain entry into a community of citizens who recognize one another as sharing in universal--and universalizing--human emotions. It's about ending the needless alienation of gays and lesbians from the social institutions that so thoroughly shape everyone else's lives. It's about whether one group should be allowed to exclude another, simply because it wants to.
This is why marriage is important for gays and lesbians, and why so many of us refuse to accept a "separate but equal" substitute, such as civil unions or domestic partnerships. Heterosexuals must try to move beyond their fears of change and rise above the desire for superiority to accord full dignity to all Americans regardless of their sexual orientation.
When segregationists told the black citizens of the Jim Crow South that they were "free" to send their children to their own black schools--with facilities "equal" to the white ones, just separate--this did not eliminate the indignity, wickedness and immorality of black exclusion. Gays and lesbians today are no less worthy of full inclusion.