I grew up in the Village in New York, so to me LGBT equality has always been a given, including on the marriage issue as it arose in the 1990s. But if you asked me ten years ago, I would have been very surprised at the direction the road to equality has taken. I was fairly certain, at the time, that we were heading in the opposite direction. That people would say that, on the one hand, most large religious denominations objected to the idea of same sex marriage. But people would say that on the other hand it’s not fair for people to live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. So since a wedding is, at root, a kind of religious ceremony we would achieve equality through the disestablishment of marriage. People, gay or straight, would form registered legal partnerships of some kind (“civil unions”) and the question of who is and isn’t married would be left to various religious denominations.
The upshot would be that secular people generally wouldn’t get married. Once upon a time, after all, the religious function of baptism was closely tied to the secular function of legally registering new births. But that’s not the way things work anymore. There’s a perfectly egalitarian secular system of birth certificates, and operating in paralel you have some different religious ceremonies to mark new births for those who are interested.
Obviously, I’m totally wrong. Marriage equality came to New York last night and the whole country is on the road. Meanwhile, my best friend from high school got married earlier this summer, I’m going to a wedding later today, and I’ve got several more weddings on the agenda for 2011. It’s inspiring to see these victories for justice and equality, but I also do think it’s worth pausing to acknowledge that the specific form the victory has taken is an interesting affirmation of the conservative streak running through American life. LGBT rights advocates and their allies really haven’t wanted to tear down traditional family structures, they’ve patiently, insistently, and effectively demanded access to them.