Jeff Steen wonders what marriage will look like for the LGBT community now that 17 states have marriage equality laws.
Since May 17, 2004—that tearful day when Massachusetts watched countless same-sex couples legally wed—16 states have celebrated LGBT marriage equality: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington (my home state), and Washington, D.C.
Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before the entire country opens its hearts and minds to same-sex marriage. As one young LGBT activist recently pointed out:
The time for conservative stubbornness is falling away with the generations that champion it. Younger generations are speaking now, and their wishes are abundantly clear: we will have same-sex marriage.
I, too, have long been an advocate for same-sex marriage. But what’s slowly coming to the fore in states where this is already a reality is a social double-take. Advocates and allies have been pushing—with tremendous passion—for this equal right and opportunity, but some haven’t thought much past the signing of the legislation that they seek. What, after all, does it mean to be married?
For many in our community, marriage is a mark of legal equality and nothing more. It acknowledges partnership rights in same-sex, committed relationships now enjoyed by heterosexual couples. But for others, it is more than that—it is a faith-bound union of two individuals for life. More often than not, the legal and faith definitions intersect.
Perhaps we could look to the traditions of faith-based heterosexual marriages to understand what comes next. Perhaps it is enough to say that marriage is government acknowledging our equality. But should it be different for us? How does the idea of commitment change when faith enters the picture? Or does anything change when that fateful day comes and we celebrate with all our LGBT brothers and sisters on the steps of the national Capitol? Perhaps we will just return to our lives and our relationships, not living them that differently at all.
I have heard stories from long-committed couples in Washington state who once pressed for same-sex marriage, that when the votes were cast, something uneasy set in. Were things to suddenly change for them? Were they bound to accept some sort of church-based classification of their relationship? What did the government expect from them?
I offer these questions not critically, but constructively. What happens when marriage is ours—completely and undeniably? It is not a question that deserves anxiety or defense. I think, rather, it is an opportunity for us to grow as a community—together. How can we explore marriage among ourselves? What does matrimony mean to us? And how will we share that meaning with society as a whole?
There’s something else to consider, as we ponder what our marriages look like. Yes, we acknowledge—and celebrate—the victories of legal equality that are enjoyed in 17 states. But legal equality and actual equality are two different things. What courts have afforded us by way of legal protection, society does not so generously give. Yes, judicial privilege has brought us to the steps of LGBT equality, but acceptance is a long and difficult journey that no court or government can mediate. How do we walk that road while weighing our commitments to each other? It seems to me that we—as every minority before us and with us—must patiently walk our way with fairness, right, and the common good. For that is what will define us.
And as we walk, why not look to the future and imagine the bright days ahead, so that someday, we will be able to look back and see the bright days that were? Why not ask ourselves now, before LGBT marriage is an understood and ubiquitous right, what we want marriage to be?