What's the big deal?

December 04, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- I used to have a neighbor who put a refreshingly blunt bumper sticker on her car: "Don't Like Abortion? Don't Have One."

When I heard President Bush's response to the recent Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts' decision that said same-sex couples were entitled to "the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage," I thought of how that bumper sticker could be updated into a modest proposal for the president: "Don't Like Gay Marriage? Don't Have One."

Mr. Bush was responding to an assertion by Massachusetts' highest court that same-sex marriage is a right protected by the state's constitution and supported by recent U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.

The president vowed to "do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage." He did not explain precisely how gays and lesbians are attacking the sanctity of marriage with their wish to be bound by it.

In fact, same-sex marriages are not likely to have any impact on the sanctity of the president's marriage or my marriage or any other heterosexual's marriage. My wife and I would still be married and so would the president and the first lady -- for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, etc., etc.

In fact, if anyone is undermining the sanctity of marriage these days, it's my fellow heterosexuals. Look at our statistics: Somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. More than half of births to women under age 25 are out of wedlock. We make light of the institution with quickie Las Vegas marriages, quickie divorces and weird catch-a-man shows such as The Bachelor that elevate gold-digging almost to an Olympic sport.

But we don't punish heterosexuals for debasing the sanctity of marriage. Instead, legislators have responded to the public's will by making it easier to get no-fault divorces and harder to prosecute cheaters for adultery. Despite stalwart efforts by some to reverse that tide, the tide has not turned.

In June, after the Supreme Court overturned Texas' anti-sodomy law as a violation of privacy and equal protection rights, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted the decision would open the door to -- horrors! -- gay marriages.

I did not share his sense of alarm. After all, as I wrote at the time, "some gay couples are staying together longer than many of their `hetero' counterparts. Maybe the rest of us could learn something from them."

Since then, we may not have learned as much from gay couples about love and commitment as we have learned wardrobe and decorating tips from the "fab five" on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Their popularity attests to how relaxed our society has become, particularly among the young, about homosexuals in recent decades. So does the popularity of no fewer than 11 gay or lesbian characters among the current leading or supporting actors on prime-time TV sitcoms and dramas such as Will & Grace and Six Feet Under, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

And at least a million American children are estimated by some experts to be growing up in homes with same-sex parents. About 60 percent of the nation's adoption agencies now accept applications from gays and lesbians, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a leading research center.

Some church-affiliated groups dispute reports that those children have grown up as happy and healthy as children in single-parent or opposite-sex households. Yet the overall success of gay adoptions in states that permit it has helped move the courts and the polls toward more tolerance in recent years.

Nevertheless, instead of imposing gay marriage on the state, the Massachusetts court wisely gave the legislature six months to come up with a solution that will save gay families from second-class status. It is best that such hot-button social issues be resolved by lawmakers, not judges, to avoid even more rancor and backlash.

Interestingly, all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have run toward the new middle ground on this issue: They oppose gay marriage but support "civil unions." Polls show the public finds "civil unions" to be more palatable than "marriage" for gays, although the difference is more linguistic than real.

Times change. While most older people I know still tend to lose all the blood from their faces when the words "gay" and "marriage" are put next to each other, my son's middle school friends are more likely to shrug and say, "What's the big deal?"

We can learn a lot from our kids sometimes. Sometimes they can show us how much this country is moving toward more tolerance, not less.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and his column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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