The Marriage Quandary

The Episcopal church in America is facing a schism over its August decision to confirm a gay priest as a bishop.

The pope has come out and essentially threatened Roman Catholic elected officials not to support legalization of gay marriage.

And now there is a movement in the US Senate to amend the Constitution to create a federal definition of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman.

At the same time, gays and lesbians have gone mainstream, as far as the popular culture is concerned. Will and Grace, one of the more popular shows on TV, features a gay lawyer as a lead character. Ellen DeGeneres, who came out of the closet several years ago, has a syndicated talk show. There is a gay police officer on Comedy Central's Reno 911 and gay and lesbian characters on a host of daytime soap operas. And Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a fashion and decorating show that relies on the some of the more dubious of gay stereotypes, also is popular.

Even Eminem, who rightfully has been criticized for homophobic lyrics in the past, has changed his tune. His character in the movie 8 Mile defends a gay man during one scene.

Are we really this schizophrenic as a society?

Apparently. We are willing to watch gays and lesbians -- but only from a safe distance. Recent polls still show opposition to gays being legally married. The reason: Marriage should be reserved for people who truly love each other and are willing to commit to each other for the rest of their lives.

This assumes, of course, that two men or two women could never have these feelings for each other, which is patently absurd.

Even more absurd, of course, is the notion that only a man and a woman can have the special bond that transcends what can be felt by same-sex couples. Think about it: The divorce rate hovers somewhere between 40 and 50 percent (depending on who is doing the research), meaning that nearly as many marriages fail as succeed. Of the survivors, there are plenty that shouldn't -- we all know couples that have been married for years that either always have despised or have come to despise each other. No special bonds there.

So why make the distinction?

The answer, I think, has more to do with intolerance and fear than with any necessary policy requirements. One only has to listen to the rhetoric of politicians like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) or even President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II to truly understand where the right is coming from in the gay marriage debate.

The president, for instance, has said that "marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other."

And the pope has issued a 12-page document -- "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons" -- outlining how Catholic politicians should respond to proposed legislation legalizing gay marriage.

"There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family," the document says. "Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law."

To this way of thinking, civilization will be endangered if gays are allowed to marry. Santorum, for instance, has likened homosexuality to, among other things, bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery and he criticized the right to privacy for allowing people to do things "that are deviant within their own home."

Santorum thinks the "right to privacy lifestyle" has encouraged what he would consider illicit behavior because it prevents the state from having the "rights to limit individuals' wants and passions."

This analysis of homosexuality and privacy smacks of the kind of government control of our private lives that we have witnessed in theocratic states like Afghanistan under the Taliban. There is no mention of the family unit in the Constitution, but there is a long body of law endorsing the right to privacy -- the court in 1965, in creating an explicit right, cited the shadows cast by "specific guarantees" in earlier case law and in the Fourth and, in particular, Ninth amendments.

The attack on gay marriage is essentially a religious attack, one rooted in the belief that the notion of marriage as a functional union designed to guarantee procreation. To craft a discriminatory public policy in this way would seem to violate the separation clause of the First Amendment prohibiting the government from favoring any particular religion.

Of course, that's essentially what we're doing by recognizing marriage in its current form, which is far too narrow to account for the many variants that have cropped up. At the very least, the law needs to recognize the idea of union, as opposed to marriage, basing it on the notion that consenting adults who have committed themselves to each other and live together are no different than those who walk into a church, synagogue or mosque or who say their vows before a judge or mayor.

You shouldn't need a piece of paper from the government -- or some imprimatur from the church -- to share in health or other benefits. It really should be none of the government's business who any of us choose to spend out lives with.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

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