The news and editorial departments of the New York Times have been giving a lot of (well-deserved) attention to the issue of marriage equality recently. In fact, the paper’s editorial board has emerged as a forceful advocate for the freedom to marry.
A recent column by economics and behavioral science professor Richard H. Thaler, titled Gay Marriage Debate is About Money, Too, makes a good argument for marriage equality in terms of dollars and cents. (I and many others wish the American media, including the Times, would stop using the inaccurate and misleading term “gay marriage,” but that’s for another post entirely.) However, Thaler’s central argument is flawed at its core:
In my ideal world. . . the legal unions that are now called marriages would be called domestic partnerships, which would be offered to same-sex as well as heterosexual couples. But if some states are unwilling to enact such statutes, same-sex couples who live in those states could simply go to a state that does offer same-sex domestic partnerships, and would then be treated as such by the federal government, with all the attendant financial benefits and responsibilities. Companies can choose the state in which they incorporate, so couples should have that privilege, too.
Marriage, of course, would continue, but would no longer be regulated by the government. Instead, weddings would become like many other important ceremonies from graduations to funerals: private matters. (Conservatives may applaud now.)
First, Prof. Thaler, I hate to burst your bubble, but conservatives won’t be clapping. They don’t just oppose marriage equality, but seek to block any and all legal recognition of the basic human rights of LGBT people (employment protections, anti-bullying laws, hate crimes laws, etc.). Second, they won’t accept marriage for same-sex couples by another name. For proof, look no further than the texts of the marriage discrimination amendments found in state constitutions all across the country. Most of them look like this one from my home state of Wisconsin:
Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.
Third, sir, do you really think that marriage recognition for same-sex couples should be contingent upon the state in which they live, or that couples who can’t afford to “simply go to a state that [offers] same-sex domestic partnerships” should just keep their heads down and accept their second-class status? Do you really think marriages — but again, only same-sex marriages — should dissolve once a legally-married same-sex couple crosses state lines? The assertion would be laughable if it weren’t so galling.
Finally, professor, even if your plan was magically implemented tomorrow and all couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, would only be able to enter into domestic partnerships in the eyes of the state, a two-tiered marriage system would still exist because of the tens of millions of opposite-sex couples and thousands of same-sex couples who’ve been legally married up until that point. The only “fair” way to enact your ludicrous plan would be to unilaterally commute all current civil marriages — opposite-sex and same-sex — to domestic partnerships. And if you or anyone else thinks heterosexual couples will be willing to give up the privilege and the federal protections that the word “marriage” entails, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
Contrast Thaler’s tortured reasoning and flawed “logic” with the eloquent words of openly gay op-ed columnist Frank Bruni. In an opinion piece published today in the Times titled Value Our Families, he writes:
In the intensifying debate over same-sex marriage, what I sometimes find hardest to understand is why so many opponents don’t see gay people’s longing to be wedded as the fundamentally conservative, lavishly complimentary desire it is. It says marriage is worth aspiring to and fighting for. Flatters it. Gives it reinvigorated cachet, extra currency, a sorely needed infusion of fresh energy. . .
Both [pro-equality Maryland governor Martin O'Malley and anti-equality New Jersey governor Chris Christie] were talking about family values, two words that have often been invoked in the argument against same-sex marriage. It’s time to turn the phrase around. What gay and lesbian couples are asking is to be recognized as families. And they’re just idealistic enough to hope that everyone realizes how much value there is in that.
Other than advising Professor Thaler to take a memo, I don’t think anything else needs to be said.