Few issues unite American's more than the opposition to gay marriage. Even among Democrats, you normally will find few politicians willing to proclaim the union of two homosexuals a marriage, even if they are open minded about allowing civil unions or some other legal partnership.
I admit to having been on the fence. Gay marriage shot to the top of the culture wars after judges in Massachussetts decreed that gays had a constitutional right to marry. I get nervous whenever judges start stretching the meaning of words. Since the founding of our nation, marriage has been commonly accepted as a union between one man and one woman. Even if I agreed that the definition of marriage could and should be expanded to include gays, I would want this changed through actual political debate rather than through judicial fiat. If you allow judges to start altering the meaning of commonly understood words in order to promote some social good, you unintentially grant them the power to do great harm. We live in a land of laws, and we have an open process for changing those laws. Judges shouldn't be able to side step the normal legislative process.
That said, I am 100 percent in favor of gay marriage. I don't want to change the mind of judges, however. I think the first goal should be to change the minds of average Americans. I know that this seems to be an impossible hurdle, and it's an easier, quicker task to change the minds of a handful of judges rather than trying to sway a hundred million voters or more toward your point of view. But, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right.
So what is my best argument that marriage is an institution that should be open to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals?
Not long ago, I was discussing marriage with an atheist couple. They seemed almost apologetic that they had decided to get married, since it was such a traditional, churchy thing to do. I was familiar with such feelings from my own life. I'm a libertarian, so I don't feel like I should have to seek the approval of a state to decide who I spend my life with. And, I'm an atheist, so I don't need to seek the approval of a god or a church. Of course, our society has built up a lot of legal advantages for married people over non-married people. There are tax benefits, you get breaks on insurance and other shared purchases, and there are estate issue that are vastly simplified if you are legally recognized as the spouse of someone who has just passed away. Once some people have these advantages, it's only natural that people excluded from these advantages would want them as well.
I've never really been happy with the whole "legal advantage" line of thinking. To me, it strips a lot of romance out of marriage. Of course, in a lot of cultures historically, marriage had nothing to do with romance. It was much more nakedly an economic tool than a means of professing love.
But, we live in a culture that has intertwined love and marriage. If you love someone, and keep loving them long enough (a very flexible standard, "long enough"), you marry them. And, that's the sweet and simple reason that atheists do frequently decide to get married; it's a declaration of love. You just want the world to know. To deny gays this same declaration of love seems small minded and small hearted.
I can almost hear the protest now among the defenders of traditional marriage. If a homosexual couple, or atheists, or whomever, wants to hold a big party and dress up in fancy clothes and make a public declaration of their love that includes cake, go for it. It's still not marriage, since the primary goal of marriage, they would argue, is procreation, which homosexual couples are biologically incapable of. Of course, this would also exclude the elderly from getting married. Or, people who are sterile for some random physical malady. Or, people who just don't want children. "Do it for the kids" seems to me to exclude too many people who we do already allow to marry.
As far as the big party, the actual wedding, that's just one day. Weddings do not a marriage make. However, in the traditional vows, you do find what I think are the most honest reasons that homosexuals, atheists, and, well, everyone, should desire marriage: "In sickness and in health, till death do us part."
If marriage were just a contract people entered to raise kids, then everyone could just get divorced after those kids grow up. But marriage isn't a contract only to work together to raise kids, or to be best friends laughing together when times are good. There's a bargain you enter in marriage that overrides everything else: You agree to be the person who will never abandon your partner just because he or she gets sick. You are agreeing to be the person who will change your partner's diapers if they get paralyzed in a car wreck. You are agreeing to sit by a bedside and hold their hands when they are withering away from cancer. You take a stand and say, "I will not abandon you in your times of greatest adversity," with the bargain being that your partner will do the same if it's you in the intensive care unit.
We live in a culture that seeks to restrict marriage from some people, while at the same time, heterosexual marriage seems to have lost its sticking power. The vows for many "traditional" couple seem to have been edited to read, "for better or for worse or until we get tired of each other, or until someone hotter comes along." It's not gays who are the biggest threat to traditional marriage. I think instead it's that we've overemphasised the warm and fuzzy romantic feelings that start a marriage and lost sight of the end game.
Marriage isn't just about the wedding. It's also about the dying. And whether you are straight or gay, Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu or atheist, you are going to one day get sick and die. It's the universal human condition, and marriage and families are the best tools we've developed as humans to help us endure our endings. To deny this comfort to anyone seems to me to be the worst sort of inhumanity.