WASHINGTON - Now that the Supremes have ruled that when it comes to consenting adults, you just have to stop interfering (in the name of love), the country seems atwitter over the effect this ruling might have on marriage.
This is an interesting leap. Commentators are not anxious, for example, that legalizing sodomy will open the floodgates to other civil rights, affecting areas such as employment or housing discrimination. Curiously (or not, if you realize that marriage is that one institution that effectively obliterates the wall between church and state), this debate has now centered on marriage rights.
Heterosexuals may love the transformation wrought on hapless Butch in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but trading bons mots and teaching the finer points of hair gel application seem less threatening than the specter of matching tuxes or a bachelorette party at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Amid all this hoopla, it's easy to believe that the gay community is unambivalent about this particularly freighted institution.
Certainly, a majority of gays (and many heterosexuals) understand this as a no-brainer civil rights issue, a fundamental social institution (with both social and economic benefits) to which certain people are systematically denied access.
As a nation, we're familiar with this process. This time, however, it's not race or religion, but sexuality.
Actually, it's a quite banal and straightforward proposition that can be refuted only outside the discourse of democracy, law, and civil liberties. Indeed, only God, "natural law," or "morality" (yours, of course) justifies such an exclusion.
As a staunch believer in fundamental rights, I can no more oppose gay marriage than equal access to education, housing or the right to vote regardless of gender or race. It's unambiguous discrimination to exclude an entire group of people from core social, cultural and economic institutions. My Russian Jewish grandparents knew that when they immigrated here, as did the suffragists, the abolitionists and civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s.
But whether gays should want to be part of that institution is another matter, and one that receives little mainstream attention, although a robust debate has raged in the gay community.
Feminists have argued for years that marriage is a troubled and troubling institution, not easily transformed by a simple gender switch.
Not only is the institution built on the ownership of women and children, sexual and emotional violence and a sexual division of labor, but it reinforces the values of a limited model of intimacy based on the superiority of "the couple" as the fundamental social unit. Marriage creates a hierarchy of relationships, with state-regulated long-term pairing at the top. It grants social legitimacy and legal/financial benefits to one type of relationship, explicitly disenfranchising those who choose alternative modes of living and loving. We even "mark" children by their relationship to this institution (legitimate or illegitimate).
Far from being "natural," marriage is a creation of the state, conferring social maturity and legitimate citizenship.
Has the gay imagination become so dulled by the promise of allure of commercial hipness that we have traded in our robust aggro for blenders, matching gowns and safe "acceptance"? For many, marriage has become the proverbial brass ring - grab it and you've got a free ride on the merry-go-round of social legitimacy.
But reimagining love, sex and family was at the heart of the liberationist ideal. We proposed alternative "families of choice" and expansive understandings of intimacy and sexuality. The fiction of the connubial couple, blissfully enthralled and wholly fulfilled, sanctioned by the state and protected by the white picket fences of family and faith, was exposed as the central mechanism for the reproduction of male dominance and sexual inequality.
So why the rush to the altar? Surely, this signals a shift in the movement - when marriage and the military become the defining issues for lesbians and gays in 21st century America you know times have changed. Some of it is inevitable mainstreaming and some reflects an optimism that lesbians and gay men are transforming marriage by embracing it.
But it's also a disheartening sign of the distance from our liberationist past and our fraught but important relationship with feminism. I'll fight to the end for the right to marry, but I may just be carrying my own protest sign on that special day.
Suzanna Walters is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (University of Chicago Press, 2001)