Jonathan Rauch, the vice president of the Independent Gay Forum, is a prolific writer on public policy issues. His new book is "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America." Beliefnet interviewed him recently about why he believes gay marriage will be a boon for everyone.

You point out that many people's thinking has been pretty sketchy on gay marriage. Why is that so?
Marriage is like water to a fish. People take it so completely for granted that they've forgotten what it's for. On my book tour, I expected to be selling gay marriage to straight people and marriage to gay people. What I'm doing is selling marriage to straight people. A lot of married people come away saying this has given them a new appreciation of what my marriage is all about.

What do people think it's about?
The two standard misconceptions are that marriage is a contract between two individuals and therefore, no one else's business, or that marriage is just a piece of government paper that hands you a bunch of benefits and puts a state seal of approval on a preexisting relationship.

Those are both very shallow views of marriage. It is a package of benefits, and it is a reciprocal arrangement, but beyond that it's a covenant between the couple and their community. Community is the silent partner in every marriage. That's why we have big weddings and wedding gifts and anniversary celebrations and rings on our fingers. It's why people ask us how our husbands and wives are every day. That makes marriage unlike any other relationship in its bonding power and in its social status.

Some say that gays have a special view of the culture and relationships that isn't compatible with traditional marriage.
There are lots of ways to be an outsider. Gay people will never be exactly like straight people. It will never be just like being left handed. But I do think that a lot of the problems and pathologies of gay life histories--what my adversaries call the "homosexual lifestyle"--are in fact the problems of the marriageless lifestyle.

What about those who say gay marriage will destroy the institution?
You hear four basic claims. The "everything goes" claim, that once you break one boundary, you break them all; the claim that gay marriage will further sever the link between marriage and children; the claim that people won't take marriage seriously and will inspire straight people to take marriage less seriously.

Let's start with polygamy.
Same-sex marriage in fact reaffirms that everyone should have the opportunity to marry somebody that they choose. That's the principle of monogamy. If you think the purpose of marriage is procreation, then you should be for polygamy because polygamy likes lots of babies. Ask any Saudi prince. But if you think marriage makes it possible for everybody to get married and have a family, gay marriage is of course completely consistent with that. It gives gay people the opportunity to marry without taking that opportunity away from straight people. Polygamy, on the other hand, is a zero sum game. For every winner there are at least several losers. It's a very dangerous, destabilizing situation. That's why you don't find polygamy in liberal, democratic societies. It is not consistent with equal pursuit of happiness. So gay marriage is the opposite of polygamy.

Some say the answer is to get government out of the marriage business altogether, or to get religion out of the marriage business and let the government handle it.
What those two ideas have in common is they're trying to detach social marriage from legal marriage. Legal marriage is the license and all the changes in legal status that go with it. Social marriage is all the expectations that go with marriage, of not letting down your in-laws, of living up to what friends and family and neighbors expect. Religious marriage is obviously part of social marriage because it's one of the most powerful ways a community gets behind marriage.

If you get government out of the marriage business, it's much harder for people to know who's undertaken this remarkable obligation. You'd have to talk to people, "So what's your status? What kind of contract do you have?" It's very important to have a very simple in-or-out so employers and everybody else knows how to treat you. The genius of marriage is that it doesn't tell you what you have to do to be married. It just tells you where the boundaries are-what the rules are for entering and what the rules are for leaving. And it hands you this big box of tools.

What kind of tools?
Tools for caring for someone. It's very hard to care for someone if you cannot get access to the hospital room. It's impossible to confide in someone if you fear they'll be subpoenaed to testify against you in court; marriage obviates that. You can go on down the list of so-called "marriage benefits" and see that they're really marriage responsibilities. They are the tools you need to be responsible for another human being.

This is the beginning of the gay responsibility agenda and the end of the gay rights agenda. It's about people being asked to be treated as adults. The fundamental responsibility that distinguishes an adult from a child is the responsibility to care for somebody else.

Do you think gay-marriage advocates have done a good job of presenting the issue?
It's presented as a civil-rights issue and that's important. It's just not sufficient. It's also a family policy issue and it's a morality issue. I don't think gay people can fully persuade America if we say, "It's a right we have. So what if you fear it will destroy marriage?" If gay marriage would destroy marriage, then it's not a right worth having-it's a self-defeating right.

So I think it's very important for people to understand that gay marriage is not an attack on marriage. If anything, it's likely to reinvigorate marriage by reinforcing its core principle that sex, love and marriage should go together-no exclusions, no exceptions. That's a principle we've gotten way away from, thanks to heterosexual abuse of marriage in the last 30 years. It's ironic to hear gay people who want into that traditional, conservative institution being told they're the threat.

Many people say, "Yes intellectually I think so but for some reason it just bugs me." Do you get that response? Do you find people who just sort of say, "It makes me uncomfortable."
I honor that reaction. This is a multi-millennium institution, which in Western culture is always between men and women. This is our bedrock institution of society and you don't mess with it lightly. It would be way too glib to say it's a civil right, let's just do it. That's why I favor the state-by-state approach. Plant the seed in the soil that's receptive and I think it will demonstrate very quickly that it's a positive sum game. Good for gays and for straights and for marriage.

You stress love, but for you the clincher seems to be the function of marriage in society, in an almost mechanistic way.
For me, the core purpose of marriage is to create family for everybody. That is the constant of marriage in our society. You don't have to have kids. You don't have to be fertile. But as a spouse you do have to be there-that's expected. And that's where society's interest lie. At some level society says, "Well, it's nice if people in a family love each other, but even if they don't if they are there for each other that's what we care about.

How do you see this rolling out?
You let the states work it out individually. Initially, Massachusetts is court ordered, but I think there's a very good chance that in 2006 the public in Massachusetts will support it in a constitutional referendum. Within ten years it's a pretty good bet that at least one state, maybe California for instance, will adopt gay marriage the old fashioned way--not through the courts, but they'll pass a bill and the governor will sign it.

But what about people who want to be married in Oklahoma?
They'll have to wait. It's a huge compromise, telling these millions of gay couples who have waited 3,000 years or 10,000 or a million or whatever and they're going to have to wait before their marriage in Massachusetts is recognized in any other state. They're going to be magically unmarried the minute they leave Massachusetts. But I honestly don't believe there are any shortcuts.

What's the best argument against gay marriage?
Probably the argument of unintended consequences which is, it's never been tried. It's a very important institution and what if we're not as smart as we think. Once it's out there it's really hard to get it back. We know that from divorce liberalization and from a number of other changes in society. That another reason not to do it by mandate. If tons of straight couples are going to break up as a result of gay marriage, we'll know that pretty soon. But I think what will happen instead is that people will discover that it's not a win-lose, it's a win-win.

What about those who say gay marriage might make the United States a better place in terms of social order, but who believe what gay people do is wrong?
Well, I've got news for them: Gay people are doing it anyway.

That's not really a moral argument: "Well they're doing it, we might as well make it legal."
Well, gay sex is now legal throughout the whole country and I don't hear anyone proposing to change that.

You should spend some time on my website.
Well, if the real agenda is to repress and stigmatize homosexuals, then what those people are saying is, "Let's use marriage as a weapon to make gay people suffer so that there will either be fewer of them, or so they'll go away and leave us alone. If that's what they're saying I can only reject that as deeply cruel and pointless.

If what they're saying is, look, I just don't think homosexuality is as good as heterosexuality on a moral plane, it's not the equal or the equivalent, that's different. My message isn't that homosexuality is necessarily as good as heterosexuality. It's that marriage is better than nonmarriage. In a world with gay marriage, even people who think homosexuality is inferior will grow up thinking marriage is better than nonmarriage. I think that's a very positive message to send about marriage.

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