After days of being just one vote away, the New York state legislature passed a bill late Friday night allowing marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law, prompting Philip Klein to quip, “So a lot has changed since [the] current NY governor’s dad ran the ‘Vote for Cuomo Not the Homo’ campaign.'”
A lot has changed indeed. As recently as the 1990s, the belief that marriage was anything but a union between a man and a woman was a fringe position. A huge bipartisan congressional majority passed and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act when it looked like judges might rule differently in just one state. Same-sex marriage was considered an oxymoron, not a blow for equality. When given the chance, blue states were as likely as red states to vote it down.
New York is now the biggest state where marriage is legally considered a unisex institution. This is the result of democratically enacted legislation, not judicial fiat. Though supporters have yet to prevail in a single state referendum, more than half of the six states that have full gay marriage (not just civil unions) have now arrived at that destination by the legislative process rather than judicial imposition.
While vast pockets of resistance remain in the black and Hispanic communities, the Democratic Party is trending inexorably toward an embrace of this new definition of marriage. Barack Obama is sure to be the last Democrat nominated for president who even nominally opposes the idea. The Republican Party has been divided on the issue between opponents who are sincere but strategically inept and party elites who need social conservative votes but care nothing about social conservative concerns.
For now marriage is likely to become another red-blue debate, a basic social institution that means something completely different depending on state residence or where one sits along the political spectrum. In the long term, however, the momentum is decidedly in favor of New York-style matrimony. The Obama administration has withdrawn its support from the Defense of Marriage Act; courts are buffeting California’s Proposition 8 on the grounds that some constitutional amendments are less constitutional than others.
How did we get here? The plain fact is traditional marriage was under assault long before same-sex couples began demanding state sanction for their relationships. For millions, marriage long ago ceased to be a promise made before God and community for man to take care of woman until death do us part, for man and woman to take care of their children until they are old enough to take care of themselves.
In its place is a half-meant promise to live together until man and woman are sick of each other or no longer have sufficiently enjoyable sex, with children fitting somewhere alongside who gets the Prius as a priority.
For all the rhetoric about the “freedom” to marry, marriage is in fact a constriction of liberty, the imposition of obligations that last a lifetime. While the ideal of marriage remains attractive, for many its obligations do not. And over time, various social circumstances undergirding traditional marriage changed. Women ceased to need men for their economic support. Illegitimate children no longer had to be differentiated from legitimate ones. Religion, morality, and tradition became a matter of personal taste. To many, marriage is simply state recognition of their affections, a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on their relationships.
Once marriage was separated from its reasons for being, denying gays — whose relationships were increasingly destigmatized — state recognition of their affections seemed to many well-meaning people to be arbitrary and more than a little cruel.
But even in today’s society, severing marriage from its last links to biology will have its consequences. After the initial euphoric rush down the aisles subsides and the backlog of license applications clears, most New York gays and lesbians will likely enjoy the social status their new right confers without ever exercising it. For as the gay libertarian writer Justin Raimondo has argued, “That’s because [gay marriage supporters] have never explained — and never could explain — why it would make sense for gays to entangle themselves in a regulatory web and risk getting into legal disputes over divorce, alimony, and the division of property.”
It will be mostly heterosexuals marrying under a new set of rules where biological parents waiving all rights to their children is as much a part of marriage’s basic design as connecting parents and children. Perhaps that’s appropriate, since heterosexuals have made the new definition of marriage thinkable.
Nevertheless, supporters of New York-style matrimony remain confident that this innovation is relevant only to about 3 percent of the population. For everyone else, all the benefits of traditional marriage will remain intact. We can have our wedding cakes and eat them too.