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Wedded to equality.


ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 7 the polls will open in California, where one eighth of the nation's people live. By the end of the day, the course of gay rights in the state, and possibly the nation, will be determined for the next several years. The reason: a ballot measure dubbed the Knight initiative that would ban recognition of same-sex marriages in California. Its passage stands to have a far-reaching impact on the direction of gay politics.

"When an eighth of the country votes on an antigay initiative, everybody in the country is profoundly affected by it," says Mike Marshall, campaign manager for the No on Knight campaign, the group fighting to defeat the initiative. "The headlines the day after will read, CALIFORNIA REJECTS ANTIGAY INITIATIVE, or CALIFORNIA PASSES ANTIGAY INITIATIVE. That will have a profound effect on policy makers in the state capital and in Washington."

Officially known as Proposition 22, the Limit on Marriages initiative, the measure is often referred to as the Knight initiative after its sponsor, Republican state senator Pete Knight. The measure would amend California's family code to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. Knight took the measure directly to voters after he was thwarted three times in his effort to pass a similar bill in the state legislature.

Critics of the measure contend that it is not only unnecessary--no state allows same-sex couples to marry--but also plainly homophobic. "The measure is discriminatory in that it singles out marriage between same-sex couples for different treatment," says Jon Davidson, an attorney in the Western office of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay and lesbian civil rights group. "This is a preemptive strike by the Right out of concern about what might happen in Hawaii and Vermont." Challenges to the ban on same-sex marriage were pending in both states when the measure was originally filed. Since then the Hawaii supreme court has dismissed the case in that state. In December the Vermont supreme court mandated that the legislature grant gay couples the same rights as married couples but left the exact remedy up to lawmakers.

For activists in California the stakes are all too clear. The success of the measure would be an undeniable boon to the antigay right. "This affects people's lives in an extreme way," Marshall says. "If you don't think so, you have your head stuck where the sun doesn't shine."

Already other initiatives are beginning to appear on the horizon in California. The most extreme one, which is given little chance of getting on the ballot, would ban the use of the words sexual orientation in any law, effectively gutting all nondiscrimination protections and domestic-partnership ordinances.

Conservatives have also begun to talk about putting forth more narrowly worded ballot measures that, like this one, would repeal landmark legislation signed into law last year by Democratic governor Gray Davis. One bill provides domestic-partner benefits to state employees, another protects gay and lesbian students from harassment, and a third strengthens the state's anti-discrimination laws on sexual orientation.

"What is abundantly clear to anyone who cares about the state of queer rights generally is that if we lose the Knight initiative, we will give momentum to those initiatives and to any other piece of antigay legislation that those who want to see us completely marginalized can dream up," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco-based legal group.

The fight, however, is proving to be a tough one. Supported by the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the state, proponents of the measure have more than twice the amount of money on hand than the No on Knight campaign does. Polls show that a bare majority support the measure, with about 40% opposing it. Even those numbers may be misleading.

"Polls on topics like this often overstate our strength," says Dave Fleischer, field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Fleischer notes that some people lie in order not to appear bigoted to poll takers, while other key gay-friendly groups, such as younger voters, tend not to mm out on Election Day.

Moreover, despite the stakes involved, the campaign itself has been remarkably low-key, generating little of the same energy that previous ballot fights have in California.

"So far, for a lot of reasons, the debate has been very quiet," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at Claremont Graduate University's school of politics and economics and an analyst of California politics. "The reality is, people are not focusing on much of anything. The electricity isn't there." In addition, other high-profile initiatives also on the March ballot, including one on insurance and another regarding gambling on Indian lands, are garnering more attention through ad campaigns.

Unfortunately, activists say, the lack of interest in the Knight initiative extends to gays and lesbians as well. "A lot of people in the gay community won't wake up and smell the coffee," Marshall says.

The apathy is due in large part to the nature of the measure. On its face, at least, the initiative would have no immediate effect on gays and lesbians, since same-sex marriage doesn't exist.

"Because it's not taking away a right that already exists, there isn't a sense of urgency," says Kendell, who is a member of the executive committee for the No on Knight campaign. "But that's a very simplistic perspective."

In addition, ballot measures banning same-sex marriage in Alaska, and in particular Hawaii, passed by large margins in 1998. Those losses may have sent gays and lesbians a message that the entire issue is a lost cause. Fleischer says that isn't necessarily so.

"I think it's likely a lot of folks in our community saw the devastating landslide loss in Hawaii and drew the conclusion we just can't win on gay marriage," he says. "It would be a shame if people drew that conclusion, when in fact the accurate conclusion might be we do really well if we take a different approach than the one used in Hawaii."

The campaign has also labored under the disadvantage of having no statewide gay organization from which to launch its drive. "The lack of a political organization, given how prominent we are in California politics and social life and how well organized we are at the local level, was surprising," Marshall says. "I didn't inherit anything. There were no volunteer lists, databases, or voter files statewide. We have had to create absolutely everything from scratch."

Should the measure pass, its effect would be far from theoretical. "In states that have adopted similar statutes, they are already starting to be used to overturn or challenge legal gains that our community has made," Davidson says. In Idaho and Pennsylvania, for instance, judges have refused to allow gays or lesbians to adopt the biological child of their partner.

Just as important, Davidson says, is the impact the law will have on politicians. Reading the political tea leaves, they may be less inclined to get involved in support of gay issues. "It will be difficult to get bills passed through the legislature because legislators will say the public doesn't like this sort of thing."

There are few legal options open to opponents of the measure should it pass. "I've heard gay folks in California saying that they're sanguine about the measure because they figure that we lawyers will take care of it in court," Kendell says. "That's really misguided. It would be a very tough legal case to bring." Because gay couples cannot get married, no one would have legal standing to go to court to say that the law specifically discriminates against recognition of their relationship.

The success of the Knight initiative could also spur similar proposals in other states. Conservatives in Colorado and Nevada are trying to collect signatures to qualify similar proposals on their state ballots, while Oregon's legislature has been debating whether to submit such a proposal to voters.

"The practical message is, if you pass a law like this in California, it's hard to defend in Oregon and Nevada," Marshall says. However, Jeffe says, the ability of the initiative to duplicate itself outside California may be fairly limited, especially since 30 states already have similar measures.

Given the financial advantage of the measure's proponents and the public's discomfort with same-sex marriage, Jeffe believes that passage of the Knight initiative is all but inevitable. "I can't see how Knight can't pass, barring every Republican in the state staying home on Election Day," she says.

Still, opponents of the measure are optimistic they can emerge victorious at the polls. "I'm hopeful we can do it, but it's going to take a lot more people contributing their time and money than have so far," Marshall says. He believes that If Democrats--including many gay voters--are "foaming at the mouth to vote" and if Republicans see little reason to vote, the No on Knight campaign will win.

And victory would send an important message to antigay activists. "They're going to use this as a first test of how much power they have and how much power we have," Kendell says. "The most important benefit of defeating the Knight initiative is that it will have the effect of drawing a line in the sand and saying, `No further.'"


What is it?

Proposition 22, the Limit on Marriages initiative, would add a provision to the California Family Code providing that marriage between only a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the state. It is widely known as the Knight initiative, after its chief sponsor, state senator Pete Knight.

What you can do

Defeating the measure will hinge on:

Turnout: Getting to the polls to vote against the measure is critical.

Money: The No on Knight campaign is still seeking contributions.

Volunteers: Opponents of the initiative need volunteers to help get the word out about the measure.

RELATED ARTICLE: Proposing marriage ... in full

Melissa Etheridge & Julie Cypher


"Barefoot," says Julie Cypher. "I vaguely remember that being agreed upon," Cypher and her partner, rock superstar Melissa Etheridge, don't spend much time discussing what they'd wear to their own wedding. But with California's Limit on Marriage initiative threatening to kill all hopes of gay nuptials in the state, the couple have lots to say.

"Don't get me started," says Cypher. "I was married before, so I know what it means, legally and psychologically. I'm just annoyed beyond belief that we don't get the same rights."

Adds Etheridge: "We're moving ahead [as gays and lesbians]--we're on TV, in movies, our lives are being portrayed with realism, and then, oops, a Punch of people vote on something that says you have no rights. If it's not defeated, it would feel like we went a few steps backward."

The couple, together 12 years, have been emblematic of the public acceptance of gay lives. "I remember the first time People magazine did a little article on us and ran it in the Couples section," Etheridge says. "Not the Perverted Couples or Deviant Couples, just the Couples section, where Brad and Jennifer are." More recently, Etheridge and Cypher received a surprisingly warm response to their "Who woulda thunk it?" revelation that the "bio dad" of their two young children is rock legend David Crosby.

"We thought, OK, if it's gonna get bad, it's gonna get bad on Larry King Live," says Etheridge. "But callers said, `We really support what you're doing' and `Good luck,' Every commercial break we'd go, `OK, send us a critical one, we're ready,' and the producer finally said, `I don't have any.'"

Now, if only the public would be as supportive of gay marriage and the rights it would bestow on gay parents, In order to protect their joint custody of daughter Bailey and son Beckett, Cypher and Etheridge had to get Crosby to sign away his paternal rights, Cypher to sign away half her maternal rights, and Etheridge to adopt each child. The singer then had to be approved as a parent. "Melissa had to be visited at the house by a social worker to see if the environment in which she'd be raising these children would be suitable," Cypher explains in a "Can you imagine that?" tone.

If gay marriage did become legal in California, the couple would be among the first to the altar. "On a personal level, we couldn't be more committed, but we'd just like those tax breaks, damn it? Cypher laughs. More seriously, they want the same rights as heterosexual mates, and they're uninterested in having any sort of commitment ceremony until then. "We don't want to pretend we're getting married--we only want to get married if it's legally recognized as a civil event," says Etheridge.

When the law finally changes, then they can decide what they'll wear down the aisle. "A nude marriage," Etheridge wryly suggests. "We can't decide who's gonna wear what, so we just won't wear anything."

Kort is writing a biography of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro for St. Martin's Press.

RELATED ARTICLE: French connections


While the battle to recognize same-sex relationships is waged one state at a time in the United States, in predominantly Catholic France the National Assembly passed a gay-inclusive domestic-partnership law--the Pacte Civile de Solidarity, known as le PaCS--last October.

Two Parisians already enjoying the fruits of the new law are Derrick Fennell, 36, an American who has lived in France for more than a decade, and his French partner, Phillippe Coltee, 40. "When we decided to live together 3 1/2 years ago, no one would rent to us," Fennell recalls, sitting in a snug cafe on a drizzling Parisian evening. "It's hard to get a lease in two men's names. The PaCS changes that."

Liberte, fraternite, egalite, pacse. The new law has quickly inspired a new verb, se pacser, and its adjectival form, pacse, to refer to those who register under the PaCS. The verbal distinction between pacse and marie (married) was central to getting the measure passed. With gay marriage as unpopular in France as it is in the United States, the law's champions bent over backward to assure the nation that the PaCS creates a new status under the law, not homosexual marriage.

"It was necessary to use imagination to deal with the marriage question," states National Assembly Socialist Party deputy Patrick Bloche, one of the PaCS's principal architects. Speaking in in the ornate deputies' chambers at the mairie (city hall), Bloche, 43, is all soft-spoken confidence and Gallic good looks. "Gay marriage may be possible in the future, but for now it's not acceptable. The PaCS is a legal path to addressing the realities of homosexual couples. Marriage is a religious institution."

The French law's nine articles offer unmarried couples new claims to such bread-and-beurre benefits as inheritance, tax relief, housing rights, and the French equivalent of social security. The law also makes registered partners liable for each other's debts and contracts. Any two French citizens whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined may register under the PaCS, defusing the "special rights" charge that often handicaps domestic-partnership legislation in the United States.

First proposed in 1992, a version of the PaCS was voted down as recently as October 1998. Bloche, who is also vice mayor of Paris's 11th arrondissement, is among the heroes of this long, historic conflict. His tenacity, political savvy, and legislative strategy are credited with the law's ultimate passage despite the opposition of social conservatives, the political right, and Catholic activists. A year ago this coalition rallied 100,000 people from throughout the country to march on Paris.

Appealing to the French ideal of the republic, Bloche and the bill's original author, National Assembly Citizens Movement deputy Jean-Pierre Michel, argued that the national character favored individual citizens, not fragmented communities. "We made the choice to describe the PaCS in republican terms, applying to everyone the rights and duties of citizenship," Bloche explains, warming up to the discussion. "We're not championing gays and lesbians but equality under the law. The universality of the republic requires that homosexuals not be separated out."

"The thing I love most about the PaCS is, it's for everyone," stresses Emmanuelle Bitton, 28. "The political opposition keeps trying to say it's a gay law, but the first people I know who'll register under the PaCS are my parents."

On the edge of the Marais, Paris's bustling gay epicenter, Bitton and her life partner, Sandrina Rossi, also 28, discuss the practical advantages of the new law. As co-owners of 7h10, a new boutique named after their shared moment of birth, the women debate whether or not they will "get pacse."

"I think now, with the shop, it's best if we register," Bitton explains. "Especially since I drive my motorcycle fast every day, it would be best for [Sandrina]. And like going to gay pride, it's almost a civic duty. I'm proud to live in a country that passes this law."

Adds Rossi: "We're antimarriage, but there are practical advantages for us." She laughs. "Instead of a marriage registry in the shop, we'll have a PaCS registry."

As historic a leap forward as the PaCS is, it has its limitations. A clause that addressed couples' parental and adoption rights was deleted from the final law, and the PaCS does not confer citizenship or residency on a foreign partner. Many financial benefits do not take effect immediately: Tax breaks, for example, become available only in the third year after a couple gets pacse, and a person seeking social security benefits under a partner's coverage must also wait three years.

"There are always those who say there isn't enough in the PaCS," says Bloche. "But with the PaCS our civil code now addresses directly all types of union. And if there's a great use of the law, the PaCS will evolve to respond to couples' needs."

Given the omissions, however, some gays and lesbians consider the victory largely symbolic. In the editorial pages of Le Monde, Emmanuelle Cosse, president of the Paris chapter of ACT UP, dismissed the historic law, claiming that "in practice, homosexuals don't gain very much." Caroline Fourest, president of the Centre Gal et Lesbien, reduces the PaCS passage to merely a "moment of hope," acknowledging that while "the text doesn't offer us equal rights, it goes in that direction."

Others are not so blase, pointing to what they believe is already a practical revolution throughout the country. When Fennell and Coltee recently went house hunting in the country, the loan officer encouraged them to apply as a couple. "She wouldn't have proposed it even a few weeks earlier," Fennell says. Adds Coltee: "This was a very local agency in a small town, and it was a first for us all. They were embarrassed. No one had done it before."

In fact, thanks to consistent and typically respectful prime-time television coverage of the PaCS debate, unprecedented discussion of homosexuality has penetrated even the small towns and rural areas of la France profonde (deep France). "The debate was elevated here by culturally recognized and respected people of real power," says Fennell. "In the U.S. all you hear are screaming heads of ministers and gay activists."

Interjects Coltee: "The televised debates really revealed the hate but also the courage." In fact, when highly esteemed senator and probable Paris mayoral candidate Bertrand Delanoe came out as gay while discussing the PaCS in prime time, the legislation gained momentum and credibility.

According to Bloche, French citizens who could not even say the word gai three years ago now speak it naturally. The taboo has been lifted. "The PaCS falls between subversion and normalization," he explains, pipe in hand. "Subversion because the dominant heterosexual order is challenged. Normalization because it is a phenomenon of integration, progress for both heterosexuals and homosexuals."

Bloche dismisses questions about how the National Assembly vote flew in the face of the nation's Catholic heritage. After all, France has long been so closely identified with Catholicism that it only recently did away with a law requiring citizens' birth certificates to include the name of a saint. "France is no longer such a Catholic nation," Bloche says, breaking into a broad smile. "There are 5 million couples living out of wedlock in France, and 42% of firstborn children are born outside of marriage."

He leans forward. "I just conducted a wedding this evening," says Bloche, who as vice mayor sometimes presides over heterosexual unions. "The bride told me they got married because they didn't have time to wait to get pacse."

Bloche declines to comment on his own personal life. Charismatic, handsome, and unmarried, the father of the PaCS taps his pipe and prepares to leave. "I will continue to represent everyone in my district," he defers. "If there's identification as an ally of gays and lesbians, I'm very happy. Jean-Pierre Michel and I are always asked if we're homosexual, but I want to leave aside our personal lives and prove this law is for everyone. Coming out is a private affair. I don't want to be the deputy representing gays but one of 576 deputies representing la France."

Gutierrez is senior editor for entertainment and fashion at Latina magazine.

RELATED ARTICLE: Vowing to marry ... or fight

Mitchell Anderson & Richie Arpino


"If you want to have a party and a ceremony, that's great," Richie Arpino says. "But as far as real marriage is concerned, we can't legally get married, so there's no sense in discussing it."

Arpino is sitting back in his partner Mitchell Anderson's comfy home in Los Angeles's Silver Lake district, discussing California's iniquitous Knight initiative, Wearing jeans and white T-shirts, the two look more like J. Crew models than activists, but when the subject is the March 7 ballot measure that would outlaw any recognition of same-sex marriage, it's clear the couple's passion extends well beyond their three-year relationship.

"What's behind the Knight initiative is an attempt to undermine domestic-partner benefits, health insurance, inheritance rights," warns Anderson, 38. Best known for his TV role on Fox's Party of Five and his part in the film Relax ... It's Just Sex, he now spends much of his time volunteering with the No on Knight organization working to defeat the initiative. "When you put it in those terms, people sit up and listen, Some people think the fight for legalization of marriage is way down the line, and they don't want to spend time and energy and money, My answer to that is `Too bad, It's here, It's now.'"

Anderson and Arpino have a personal stake in the battle: They would like to get married, And their families are behind them. "Both of our [straight] brothers were married in 1998," Anderson explains. "And we both had members of our respective families asking us if we were going to be next. All of my sisters are pushing for us to get married."

But the two have decided there will be no wedding bells until the state recognizes their union as a marriage. "Right now there's no reason to have a ceremony, because it's not legal," says Arpino, 43, who owns a hair salon in Atlanta (the pair have a commuter relationship).

But as house cat Elmo--a gift from Arpino "so when he's not here I have someone to snuggle with," beams the proud owner--curls up on Anderson's lap, the actor and activist speaks with the conviction of someone deeply committed to the good fight, "I'm the consummate volunteer," he says. "I can go out and speak about the initiative, and I can bring a little press too--and I can stuff envelopes."

Anderson says he's been surprised at the resistance he has encountered from some gay people. "I had a big argument with a high-powered person in the gay political world and entertainment industry," he says with a shudder. "He was saying, `What the beck do we want to buy into the heterosexual notion of marriage for? It's a failed institution, The divorce rate is 52%. They destroy each other's lives,'" Anderson is silent for a moment. "I guess it's your perspective on it," he says.

Anderson's and Arpino's perspective has emerged from their own coming together, The duo originally met in Los Angeles six years ago when both were involved in other long-term relationships, Then when Anderson spoke at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Atlanta, they soon began their courtship. "The very first thing I said was, `Hey, Richie, guess what? I'm not married anymore!'" recalls Anderson, who, like Arpino, wears a band on his wedding finger "as a symbol to ourselves that we have this commitment," he says. "And Richie said, `Great, neither am I. Let's get married?"

And so they will, As soon as the battle for equal marriage rights is won.

Epstein also contributes to Cosmopolitan and E! Online.

RELATED ARTICLE: What marriage means


If the arguments for and against same-sex marriage sound familiar, it may be because they've been used--and overcome--throughout recorded history.

The question, says writer and "spouse" E.J. Graft, should not be "How is marriage defined today?" but "How has marriage been changing throughout history?"

To my surprise my 24-year-old cousin, Rachel, was quite insistent: Madeline and I are legally married. She knew what makes a wedding--vows, prayers, family, photos, and, of course, the cake topped by two plastic brides--and Madeline and I had had one. It took almost 20 minutes for her to grasp that Madeline and I are in matrimonial limbo--wedlocked in our hearts and our friends' and families' minds, strangers to each other in the eyes of the state.

My cousin is scarcely alone: We all keep running into people who insist that surely we can get married somewhere. And Madeline and I are married, whether or not our government says so, Yet as the so-called defense of marriage acts in 30 states (and the federal DOMA) make clear, legally it just ain't so. Despite all the political thunderstorms in Hawaii and Vermont, we're still coupled outside the law.

Same-sex couples are scarcely the first to get trapped inside this conundrum, It's really a question over what marriage is: an inner state defined by the pair or a stamp conferred by an outside authority? Is it a contract made by the families, a religious sacrament that the two alone enter, or a state-issued license that orders civil affairs?

Marriage, as the Vermont supreme court recently recognized, is an overstuffed suitcase of a word, with far too many meanings jammed into its two syllables, Most people believe that real marriage is whatever they (or their parents) have or had or what their religion says it should be--even if, in our wildly pluralistic society, civil marriage is baggy enough to include childless atheists and Mormons with nine kids, Catholics opposed to divorce and thrice-married DOMA-sponsor congressman Bob Barr, The Vermont opinion elegantly peeled off that contentious verbal wrapper--marriage, with all its veil-trailing, bell-ringing associations--to expose the hundreds upon hundreds of civil rights and obligations that pulse just underneath.

We're scarcely the first to be accused of ringing in the end of civilization by proposing a change to the marriage rules, Altering marriage would "virtually destroy the moral and social efficacy of the marriage institution." At least that was the argument of one 19th-century New York state legislator opposed to allowing married women to own property, And does this one sound familiar? "[This] is worse, more debasing, more destructive, than ordinary vice ... not a whit better than polygamy"? That's Teddy Roosevelt, in the early years of the 20th century, attacking the use of contraception. Soon after, one Catholic archbishop's fund-raising letter warned that "[this] is not what the God of nature and grace, in His Divine wisdom, ordained marriage to be.... Religion shudders at the wild orgy of atheism and immorality the situation forebodes." And, just as he predicted, legal contraception led to those infamously immoral years: the 1950s.

Then there's always the argument that altering marriage laws would lead directly to "the father living with his daughter, the son with his mother, the brother with his sister, in lawful wedlock"--which is what one Tennessee judge wrote in an 1872 decision forbidding legal recognition of an "unnatural ... revolting" interracial marriage.

Of course all these jeremiads sound familiar: Marriage is always in flux, Which may be why, so often, conservatives try to protect the word itself from sinners' cooties. When people nervously suggest that same-sex couples "give their [relationships] a distinctive name and not appropriate ours"--domestic partnership, anyone?--they're all but quoting 19th-century editor and journalist Horace Greeley, who used those words to oppose legal divorce, Divorce, he argued, violated marriage's very definition--you could read it in the dictionary!--joining two people for life. "There may be something better than Marriage; but nothing is Marriage but a solemn engagement to live together in faith and love till death." In Greeley's mind--and the minds of many, a century ago--Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, John McCain, and so many other divorced-and-remarried politicians would not be Christian marrieds but blatant, flaunting polygamists.

So if marriage is forever changing, why aren't Madeline and I legally married yet, as my cousin thought? Because marriage really is as socially central as everyone believes, touching everyone's intimate and public lives. Every time the rules are changing, folks get into a sweat.

Which makes it our job to teach people that, conservative rhetoric to the contrary, marriage has never been "traditional." For instance, don't let anyone tell you that marriage has always been a religious institution. Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, early Christianity wanted nothing to do with marriage: Marriage was too sullied by secular things like property and propagation and power, things that a good Christian rendered unto Caesar, Not until 1215, after ferocious internal debates, did the Roman Catholic Church define its marriage rules and declare marriage a sacrament, And when it did so, the church outraged feudal families by declaring that marriage was made inside oneself -- that a 12-year, old girl and a 14-year-old boy could meet in some back hall, say "I marry you," and be irrevocably wed in the eyes of God, even without their parents' consent. The couple's spirits made the marriage--precisely the idea that the Vermont supreme court just endorsed, Powerful families were furious-how the heck can you maintain power if your adolescent can hand away a dynasty based on nothing more than feelings? And thus the French king declared 25 for women and 30 for men to be the legal age at which they could marry without their parents' consent.

In other words, church and state--then as now--don't always agree, When the Puritans first arrived here, they outlawed secret (or private) marriages, that immoral popish concept, But 19th-century American judges brought them back--inventing a new term, common-law marriage--to deal with all those couples living together way out on the frontier (in, say, Indiana), far from churches or courthouses, Wrote one New York court: "Society would not be safe for a moment in this, the most sacred of its relations, if an open and public cohabitation as man and wife for ten years ... could be overturned." Cohabitation is sacred, just because you treat each other as married? The family values coalition of the time mobilized in horror--and common-law marriage was banned by most American state legislatures.

As the Vermont legislators craft their remedy in response to the court's diagnosis of injustice, they might keep in mind that this debate over what makes a marriage--my heart or your rules, my state or your church--has long been with us, If they have the courage to open the comprehensive civil concept marriage to our bonds, it will no more bring down civilization than did legalizing contraception or offering wives custody and property rights, Marriage is always a social battleground, its definitions and rules constantly changing, Now, as always, the marriage wars include predictions of immorality, incest, disease, bestiality, the withering of children, and civilization's collapse--the usual curses hurled by those who have no other argument left.

Such warnings are usually based on the idea that if you change any marriage rule, you're changing the very definition of marriage. Of course, that's true: Define marriage as a lifetime commitment, and divorce flouts its very definition, Define marriage as a vehicle for legitimate procreation, and contraception violates that definition, Define marriage as a complete union of economic interests, and allowing women to own property divides the family into warring fragments. Define marriage as a bond between one man and one woman, and same-sex marriage is absurd.

But define marriage as a commitment to live up to the rigorous demands of love, to care for each other as best as you humanly can, and all these possibilities--divorce, contraception, feminism, marriage between two women or two men--are necessary, even inevitable, Depending on what happens in Montpelier, Madeline and I may soon be the boring old married ladies my cousin already thinks we are--not just in life but in law.

Graff's book What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press) is just out in paperback.

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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Feb 29, 2000
Previous Article:Putting it together.
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