Now that the California Supreme Court has ruled that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same marriage rights as heterosexuals, the golden state's residents can expect a debate about the meaning and purpose of the "m" word. The court's ruling is set to take effect in thirty days if no stay is granted, but opponents of same-sex marriage have collected over a million signatures for a November ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to bar gays from getting married.
The principle of equal rights for gay and lesbian partnerships has steadily gained steam in recent years, and all three major White House contenders, including the presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, say they favor giving gay couples similar rights to their straight counterparts. Yet all three stop short of letting gays use the "m" word, arguing that marriage itself has special significance that should be reserved for heterosexual pairings. Gay unions, they say, should be called something different.
In Britain, where I lived with my boyfriend last year, gays and lesbians enjoy "civil partnerships," a category which grants us all the same material benefits as married heterosexuals. This means, among other things, that I can gain permanent residence in the European Union by virtue of my relationship with my English partner. America, the birthplace of freedom and the source of that bold and noble assertion that we are all "created equal," offers no such right, and in fact barred that right proactively just twelve years ago: no matter how many states allow same-sex marriage, the 1996 "Defense of Marriage Act" makes sure the feds do not recognize a gay marriage. Americans would rather send me away or tear my relationship apart than grant that my six-year partnership has equal worth to those of my two brothers.
Gays and lesbians in Britain don't seem much bothered by the separate status of their partnerships. Now that they've won the right to civil partnerships, there is almost no movement for gays to take the next step and insist on the right to be "married" like everyone else, instead of "civil-partnered." And when I lived there, I adopted a similar satisfaction, feeling that the dignity of my relationship was respected and no further push was needed.
Back home, I feel differently. This is largely because, despite rhetoric promising full equality, state-based civil partnerships simply don't provide me what I need to live here happily with my partner. As a freelancer, my boyfriend would have a tough time getting a visa--whereas if he were simply a different sex, we could be married and he could be a U.S. resident in no time. And it's not just immigration that gets the shaft. A New Jersey commission issued a report in February finding that the state's civil union laws fall far short of providing the true equality its proponents promised.
But the practical shortcomings of civil partnerships also help explain a second reason why I feel differently about the "m" word for gays in the U.S. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, words are not merely symbolic. Unlike Britain, which still has titles and a Queen, our nation was born of rhetoric that contained an idea--one that explicitly swore off the value of blood, birth and the past, and embraced the proposition that all have equal dignity. When African-Americans refused to sit at the back of the bus in the Jim Crow South, it wasn't because walking a few extra steps was a material deprivation, but because it said to the world that they were second-class citizens.
This is why the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that separate is "inherently unequal." A law that denies a group of citizens equal access to a public institution serves no other purpose than to declare that group to be lesser. And this is why it is nonsense to say gays and lesbians can enjoy equality before the law while they are barred from taking their place in one of the most fundamental institutions in American life--the one and only "marriage."
Opponents of same-sex marriage are seeking a stay of the court's decision on the basis that it would be "confusing" for the status of gay unions to be called "marriage" for several months only to be reversed in a November ballot initiative. But if confusion is what we're trying to avoid, the obvious solution is to retain a single institution that's had enduring--if evolving--meaning for millennia, and to extend it to gays and lesbians. That way, my boyfriend and I won't have to explain to people every day just what our status is, and we won't have to wonder, even to each another, what our partnership really means.
There is one other key difference between Europe and America: ours is a federalist system, in which power is shared among states and the federal government. This, too, is a reminder of why the "m" word is not merely symbolic here, and why state civil unions will never fit the bill. The words we use are a measurement of how our society feels about the value of what's being named. Until the federal government repeals the odious provision of the "defense of marriage act" that bars recognition of my partnership--even when the people of my state want it otherwise--I'll be reminded every day my boyfriend is not here with me just what my country thinks of the value of our relationship, and of the dignity and meaning of our deepest emotions.
Nathaniel Frank, who will publish a book on gays in the military next year, is senior research fellow at the Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.