Progress, Not Word Games

When Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Tuesday that the state’s constitution entitled gays to marry, even some gay-rights advocates found their elation tempered by trepidation. The 4-3 decision was a long-sought victory for rights and recognition. It also was an invitation to a nationwide backlash that could make the clash over abortion seem downright genial -- at least if talk radio, which feeds on and breeds discord, has any say in it. But what if, rather than surrender the question of same-sex marriage to talk radio, reasonable people tried to reach an accord?

Between die-hard advocates and hard-core opponents are a great number of people who, for religious or other reasons, remain uneasy with the notion of gay marriage but sympathetic to such human realities as being denied access to a hospitalized loved one or turned out of a house after a partner’s death. Society’s acceptance of gays has grown in recent decades as brothers and daughters, aunts and nephews have become more open about their orientation. But it’s been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back process. When the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed itself to decriminalize sodomy, for instance, support for gay rights dropped.

Americans’ struggles with this issue show in the polls. A substantial 55% of those surveyed opposed gay marriage and 31% backed it, according to a just-released L.A. Times poll. There was less resistance to civil unions, with 40% opposing and 36% supporting legal protections for gays in areas such as inheritance, taxes and hospital visits.

The Massachusetts court left its ruling to state legislators to implement without telling them how to do so. And suddenly, Vermont-style civil unions, reviled by many three years ago when first introduced, look like a welcome alternative. Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Mitt Romney called Wednesday for a provision that provided benefits, obligations, rights and responsibilities “consistent with marriage but called by a different name.” Catholic, socially conservative Democratic legislators who oppose gay marriage have echoed the call.

Would gay marriage by another name equal marriage? For some opponents, semantics would merely serve as a disguise; for some advocates, a renaming would be a surrender when victory -- at least in one state -- was at hand. But for many Americans, a push for civil unions could mean the difference between progress toward an accord and permanent polarization. At this juncture, it would be a strategic and political mistake to get hung up on a word and overlook the rights it conveys.