California's Supreme Court is now mulling over what to do with Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. David Kaufman wonders whether gay advocates are wrong to devote so much time and anger to the issue ...


The New York Times  recently featured a story about a trend among gays and lesbians to not only marry, but also embrace the lavish trappings of getting hitched. The feature, “Of Course You Can Have It All”, chronicled an array of bended-knee proposals, elegant events and multi-carat diamond rings. As a gay man, I read this ill-timed ode to consumerism with a mix of appreciation and concern. I'm happy to celebrate same-sex love, but I couldn't help but bristle at such a cloying message of conformity and elitism.

The piece came out around Valentine's Day, but its timing was meaningful for another reason. The California Supreme Court has just heard arguments over Proposition 8, a ballot initiative passed in November that rewrites the state’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. (The court has 90 days to issue a ruling in the case.)

Since November nearly $100m has been spent on the Proposition 8 battle, making it the most costly voter initiative in American history. More than half was spent by civil-rights groups fighting for its reversal. The issue has galvanised an otherwise placid public, gay and straight, who are working to reclaim rights lost through referendum. (Gay marriage had been legal in California since a court ruling six months earlier.)

The passage of Proposition 8 was certainly a blow to progressives. Yet in this time of economic crisis, is the battle worth all the attention its getting? Is it any more vital than tackling HIV, drug use, work-place protection or access to affordable health care--all issues that directly (and often disproportionately) affect America’s gay citizens?

Just over half of California's Lesbian women and over 40% of its gay men, aged 18-59, are in cohabiting partnerships, compared with over 60% of heterosexual couples. Whether by circumstance or design, most of gay California is single or some years away from the altar. Gay marriage would grant homo-singletons civil-rights parity, but progress in health-care coverage would have a direct affect on more people. Many gay people are simply concentrating on beginning a loving relationship. Marriage is often a vague goal, legal or not.

"Gay rights used to be about liberation, but today the movement is solely focused on 'equality'," says Bill Dobbs, a New York-based lawyer and gay activist. He believes the same-sex marriage crusade bears an awkward resemblance to the "family values" message of the Christian right--as if marriage should be everyone's ultimate goal. "'Equality' is a powerful concept, but it is also a very dangerous way to run a movement. Equality won't get us affordable health care. It just pushes for more of the same, for the status quo rather than social justice."

Evan Wolfson disagrees. As founder and director of Freedom to Marry, he has emerged as America’s most vocal same-sex marriage activist. He argues that the proportion of people directly affected by legalising same-sex marriage is immaterial. The importance of this campaign should not be “determined by a show of hands,” he says. European-styled civil unions are not the answer either. “Nothing less than full equality,” says Wolfson. “The only way to achieve even part of our goals is to demand the whole.”

Echoing Wolfson is Gary Gates at the Williams Institute, a sexual-orientation law and policy think tank in UCLA's School of Law. “The argument could be made that there has been an overemphasis on marriage and [a disproportionate] allocation of resources,” Gates concedes, “but I say ‘so what’?”  Legalising same-sex marriage validates the humanity of all gay people--single or coupled, he argues. “It says your sexual attraction has the same social and normative value” as that of heterosexuals.

The benefits of marriage, from employment benefits to inheritance, are well known. Far less attention has been trained on its responsibilities. Among gay men, monogamy is not the norm, even in committed, live-in relationships. “I think men view sex very differently than women," argued Eric Erbelding, who is married in a same-sex union, in a New York Times article last June ("Gay Couples Find Marriage A Mixed Bag"). "Men are pigs... It doesn’t mean anything.” Nearly two-thirds of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts are granted to lesbians.

Growing up without the option to marry may encourage less conventional concepts of fidelity. Yet straights stray, too, of course; half of all heterosexual couples experience infidelity at some point. Advocates of same-sex marriage say the institution would offer incentives for gay men to be faithful.

If equality is the agenda, as Evanson asserts, then the fidelity question is of little consequence. What happens after the honeymoon is nobody’s business, for either gay or straight couples. “Were Bill and Hillary Clinton not married because Bill strayed?” Wolfson asks. “Gay people should have the same rights as straights to shape their marriages as they see fit.”

Yet fidelity may be the most fundamental expectation of marriage. Approaching this casually could cheapen the very institution same-sex advocates appear to idolise. “Gay people certainly should not be held to a higher standard than straights, but we cannot argue to renegotiate the cultural meaning of marriage,” said Andrew Sullivan, a prominent intellectual who is also gay, when I interviewed him on the subject. “If [marriage vows] do not matter, then the whole thing does not matter. If we as couples choose to marry, then we should abide by the established cultural norms of the institution.”

If and when gay people are granted the right to marry, they must brace themselves for a complex range of responsibilities, argues Sullivan. “We are there for each other in sickness and in health, for encouragement and support,” Sullivan notes. “These are equally important features of marriage--acts of responsibility that challenge gay men to be citizens.”

With most gays and lesbians denied the nearly 1,140 protections and benefits of marriage, the battle for same-sex marriage will duly drive on. Yet I wonder if the battlefield might be redrawn. Barely six weeks ago in Colombia, one the most conservative Latin American countries, a court amended its constitution to grant equal rights to all civil unions, regardless of sex. By recognising common-law unions, Colombia is now among the most progressive nations in the hemisphere.

By shifting their demand away from marriage, gay activists in Columbia avoided battling the nation's powerful Catholic church. The result was a civil solution to a civil rights problem. Already common in Europe, civil unions are something we would do well to consider more seriously in America. It would be useful for gay people to concentrate more on the benefits of a committed relationship instead of the religious associations of marriage.

According to polls taken after election day, nearly 10% of Californians who voted to repeal same-sex marriage regretted their decision. This figure is nearly three times the margin by which Proposition 8 passed. At the same time, nationwide polls suggest nearly half of all Americans support same-sex marriage--a figure that rises nearly 75% when civil unions are included, according to a GLAAD poll by Harris Interactive.

I wouldn't mind a shot at the altar myself one day. But by concentrating resources on sameness, same-sex marriage advocates may be sidelining a more expedient route to cultural transformation.

Picture Credit: maxintonsh (via Flickr)

(David Kaufman is a writer based in New York and a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Financial Times and Time International. He also writes about culture on his blog Transracial)