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Why Other People's Marriages Are Our Business

Proponents of full equality for gay and lesbian couples should not be arguing that marriage is a purely private matter, unconnected to the public culture we are seeking to join.
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Every time a staunch defender of marriage against gays screws up his own marriage, the same script plays out: liberals and young people rush to point out the hypocrisy of heterosexuals preaching the sanctity of something they clearly don't hold sacred. True to form, in the wake of news that Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford had affairs despite holy rhetoric about straight family values, Paul Begala said that other people's marital foibles are "none of my business" and Meghan McCain said that as long as people are themselves, she doesn't care who they sleep with.

It seems like a fair position. Cheating values crusaders--who support restricting marriage rights to their own kind under the assumption that gay unions are inferior to their own--are indeed models of hypocrisy. And their own failings strongly undercut their rationales for legally privileging their relationships above those of gays.

But there's something sloppy about using these occasions to forward the "everyone's marital business is only their own" thinking. And gay people should recognize this first and foremost, if only because being denied the right to marry forces us to question--in ways that straights often don't--what marriage is about in the first place.

I first pondered this question on the evening of a friend's wedding when she told me what her marriage meant to her. "It's a way of enlisting my friends, family and community," she told me, "in supporting what will surely be a difficult set of commitments over time." Suddenly I realized the purpose of all the ritual and ceremony, the reason for the gifts and tears and witnesses: marriage is not just a private bond, but a public identity, whose meaning is shaped by the assumptions and practices of all those who claim and recognize its status. Being married helps us keep our commitments to our spouses and our communities by creating a shared identity with very public expectations. It doesn't always work. But every day thousands of people choose to embrace this identity because of the support it helps afford them. This is why gays need access to the very same institution of marriage--not civil unions--that straights enjoy: so they can join not just each other, but the wider community of committed people whose marriage is recognized, understood and championed by people across the world. And this is why separate is inherently unequal.

Some dismiss these ideas as lofty rhetoric either because marriage so often falls short of expectations or because their own beliefs are even loftier: they insist they don't need others' approval, and that marriage is only important because it grants legal benefits. "We don't need the state or anyone else," they say, "to affirm how much we love each other, or to help us keep our vows." At best, this has always seemed an adolescent view of marriage. Anyone who has ever had a wedding, who has mentioned her husband or wife in passing, or who has dreamed of one day getting married, knows this isn't true. And anyone who thinks clearly about the intersection of psychology and public policy should too. There is something about knowing that your community--and even the laws of the body politic--recognize and affirm commitments you've made, that can help you stand by them. It's a bit of Freudian internalization, in which the pesky knowledge that something's been publicly uttered somehow makes it both more true and more serious. It then becomes tougher to shirk off. It's the reason that we should care when someone tramples their public vows, including public figures like Ensign and Sanford. We should all raise an eyebrow. It's what Jonathan Rauch calls "stigma as social policy."

Many gay rights advocates share a progressive belief (also shared by libertarians) in the sanctity of privacy. They base their defense of gay equality on the right to be left alone, something I think is partly rooted in a time when they felt this was all they needed to avoid the prying eye--and worse--of society and the criminal justice system. Once upon a time, this was all they could hope for: on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, we are reminded that homosexual intimacy was long criminalized and the most basic privacy rights were routinely invaded by police raids and upheld by laws meant to dehumanize gay people and denigrate their deepest emotions. Professing a gay marriage for all the world to see was an idea that still lay over a distant horizon.

Marriage equality is a different battle. While I understand the wish to be just left alone, it's a disingenuous argument to seek public recognition of our love on the grounds that it's nobody's business but our own. If legal benefits were all that mattered, gays and lesbians would be satisfied with civil unions or domestic partnerships.

For the historical record, the left has a proud tradition of viewing individual identity as bound up with the community and the state. It's one reason we should not shy away from acknowledging that the fight for civil marriage equality is, as the right often worries, a fight for social equality. It's not a simple case of seeking approval, but a mature recognition that people need one another, that what our community, our society, and even our government thinks does matter to both our behavior and to our sense of dignity.

Proponents of full equality for gay and lesbian couples should not be arguing that marriage is a purely private matter, unconnected to the public culture we are seeking to join. This line of thinking is both misleading and damaging to the core assumptions underlying our battle: that the recognition of our common humanity is a fundamental requirement of a just society.