On March 7, as they throw the weight of their party delegates behind the governor or the senator, the vice-president or the basketball star, Californian voters will also be privileged to vote upon a ballot initiative, dubbed Proposition 22. If passed, Proposition 22 would uphold a traditional definition of marriage by enacting a statute whose entire wording could fit inside a fortune cookie: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." Generally speaking, Californians like to think of themselves as innovative vanguards of societal change and as leaders in new ways of thinking. California gave the world the Free Speech Movement, the personal computer, legalized medical marijuana, and Boogie Nights. California has long played guru to the rest of the world in the spiritual disciplines of surfing and tree hugging. But on Super Tuesday, if the polls are correct, Californians will instead vote for convention, belatedly joining the religious right's reactionary crusade. In fact, should Proposition 22 pass, California would join some thirty other states and the federal government in preemptively banning same-sex marriage on the off chance that some unbearably tolerant state, like Vermont, might give its lesbian and gay citizens the same rights and responsibilities it gives to its straight residents. I am troubled by the proposed statute because it is unfair and unjust, and because I find problematic the primary assertion of its proponents: that laws restricting access to marriage protect marriage and make it a stronger institution.
The truth is that no matter what a person may or may not believe regarding the morality of such arrangements, lovingly committed relationships between people of the same sex, legal or not, have no effect one way or another on conventional heterosexual marriage. Wearing, as I do, the neckband of a clergyman and the wedding band of a husband, I am well aware that marriages need protection. Furthermore, I am acquainted with some of the things that threaten marriage. But legally binding commitments between persons of the same sex are not among the marital hazards I've encountered. The institution of marriage is damaged by violence, neglect, and greed. A co-workers' rakish smile can present a clear and present danger to the Honorable Estate of Marriage, as can unchecked ambition or too much golf. But I know of no connubial relationship that would ever be weakened or be made less loving and supportive because two persons of the same gender were given the freedom to declare lifelong fidelity and were granted the constraint of laws holding them accountable to those promises. If California's voters make Proposition 22 law, no groom, still groggy from his last night of bachelorhood, will be more confident at the altar, no widow's grief will be more heartfelt, and parents will not find themselves more competent for the work of crafting families. What is perhaps most troubling in the discussion surrounding California's Proposition 22 is the profound oversimplification of the community and economy of marriage betrayed in the suggestion that traditional marriages are degraded by their non-traditional counterparts.
That one couple's decision to make legally binding the covenants already established in their hearts might somehow weaken the marital stability of another couple is a suggestion that is incongruous with my experience of the often beautiful and always mysterious complexity of marriage. Like most of the successful marriages I've known, my own marriage (thanks be to God and knock on wood) is strong not because our gay and lesbian friends may or may not be able to share with us in the dignity of making public, legally binding commitments to each other. Our marriage is strong because we work hard to foster our friendship, to deepen our intimacy, and because for almost nine years we've journeyed together, hand in hand, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want. Should it pass, California's prohibition against same-sex marriage will not make our marriage better or worse. It will not affect our marriage at all. It cannot.
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