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Wedge Your Bets

By Russ Smith | Posted 1/28/2004

I don't give a hoot about gay marriage, whether it becomes legal in Maryland, Wisconsin, Texas, Massachusetts, or the entire country.

Sure, it's a novel notion, but only right now: Just as it would've seemed absurd in the 1960 presidential campaign for John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon to discuss legal abortion, I'm betting in 10 or 15 years heterosexuals won't have a monopoly on what fire and brimstone preachers, not to mention politicians, call the "sanctity of marriage," that ostensible bond belonging exclusively to a man and woman. It's an inevitable change in America's social culture--remember that the stir over gay couples adopting children has quieted down for the most part--and in the context of, say, 2014 will seem rather unremarkable. It's likely that half of homosexual marriages will end in divorce, mirroring "traditional" unions, and it won't be front-page news.

As a fairly conservative fellow, this issue puts me at odds with many who share my views about the necessity of low taxes, a drastic overhaul of Social Security, tort reform, President Bush's courageous foreign policy, and the frightening rise of anti-Semitism at home and abroad. I simply don't understand what the fuss is about. How in the world does it matter if your next-door neighbors--say, Joanne and Monica--have the same marriage certificate as you do stashed in some box in the cellar?

William Bennett, the self-appointed morality czar (although the disclosure of his apparent gambling addiction last year has tarnished that image), is typical of the social conservatives who are trying to make gay marriage a key "wedge" issue in November's presidential election. Writing in the Jan. 18 Los Angeles Times, Bennett proclaimed: "Protecting the 'one male, one female' understanding of marriage is more than a game of definitions; it is the cornerstone of society, the building block of civilization. . . . Marriage is about many things, but it primarily ties together three purposes: protecting women, domesticating men, and raising children. These purposes should not be subjected to a laboratory experiment, and they should not be redefined out of existence."

When Bennett pontificates about "protecting women" and "domesticating men" as a justification for banning gay marriage, an open-minded reader has to wonder what decade he's living in, and whether his words were delivered to a Times copyboy (uh, copyperson) by pony express. As someone who meets Bennett's approval by marrying a woman and raising children, I'm rather offended by his claim that it's my wife's obligation to "domesticate" me. As for his idea that marriage keeps women safe from harm, he ought to check the statistics on battered and abused females who are, yes, married.

This issue, which is currently being debated in the Massachusetts legislature and courts, won't be decided in 2004 or even in the next couple of years. Public opinion polls are of little use. For example, The New York Times reported on Dec. 21 that, according to its survey, 55 percent of Americans are in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. According to a Jan. 25 Sun article, a Zogby International poll found Americans "evenly split," while a Pew Research Center finding showed support for such an unusual measure at just 10 percent.

So it wasn't exactly a political profile in courage for Gov. Robert Ehrlich to say on WTOP radio last November: "[Gay marriage is] certainly not going to happen in Maryland. End of discussion." A few days later, on Nov. 26, The Washington Post (which is peculiarly strident on this topic) editorialized that Ehrlich didn't understand the privileges of a democracy. The paper said: "Probably lots of governors wish they could end discussion by fiat, but fortunately in an open society they cannot. . . . Opponents of gay marriage, and even some proponents, decry judicial interference in this matter, arguing that the issue ought to be settled in the political arena. Well, then, let the debate proceed."

I doubt the Democratic presidential candidates, fearful of angering a segment of the party's core base of voters, agree with the Post's exuberance. While Bush, in last week's State of the Union address, tiptoed around the subject, vaguely advocating an amendment if the matter isn't settled otherwise--a sop to his political base--not a single one of his challengers has come out in favor of gay marriage.

Gen. Wesley Clark, whose fading campaign seems it might not even merit a full chapter in Sun columnist Jules Witcover's inevitable book about the 2004 election, has, among the challengers, come closest to appeasing the gay community. In a Feb. 3 Advocate interview, Clark was quite creative, philosophizing, "I think marriage is a term of art. It's a term of usage." He went on endorse whatever decision is arrived at in Massachusetts, saying that if that state "says we're going to form a civil union but we're going to call it marriage, then as far as I'm concerned, that's marriage." I'll leave it to readers to decipher exactly what that means.

However, despite my support for gay marriage, on a pragmatic level I do hope the eventual Democratic nominee is forced to make a definitive stand on this still-gestating issue. Bush, who'll face a raft of smears, distortions, and outright lies about his record, couldn't ask for a more explosive distraction that, in 2004, will tip swing voters to the Republican column next fall.

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