Originally appeared August 9, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times.
Conservatives are all for personal responsibility except, of course, when it comes to their own failures. And they're always in favor of less federal intervention until it comes to their most cherished institutions. Which is why marriage gets them coming and going. It's a double bind: a failure for which they refuse to take responsibility and a cherished institution for which they are seeking special federal protection.
Hence what has been mentioned as a possible 28th amendment to the Constitution, the "federal marriage amendment," the preliminary text of which reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."
I should make it clear from the beginning that I am a natural enemy of this absurd codicil; I am a lesbian who favors gay marriage. Regardless of your point of view, you've got to bear in mind that both conservatives and liberals admit that matrimony is a mess. Some studies have reported that half of all marriages end in divorce. The anti-establishment contingent of the left wing tends to lay the blame for this sorry state of affairs on the institution itself, claiming that marriage is failing largely because it is repressive of women. Conservatives, on the other hand, say that the push for legalization of same-sex marriage is the last straw. Witness the July 23 cover story in National Review magazine, which opines that "legal recognition of same-sex marriage ... would in effect abolish the institution by collapsing the moral principles at its foundation."
Of course, in the real world the scenario is that Mr. and Mrs. Right are living in a very old house called marriage, one that is, as old houses often are, beset by termites that have all but worn away the foundation. Naturally, they're very upset about this. They fear for the loss of their home, a fear that is made exponentially worse by the fact that the gay couple next door is happily building a brand new house.
In their despair, the Rights have gotten it into their heads that their neighbors are responsible for the termites. Unable to admit to themselves that if they had taken better care of their house from the beginning, they wouldn't now be facing the loss of it, they project the blame onto poor Adam and Steve. Though any sensible person can see that the one has nothing to do with the other, the Rights have nonetheless begun circulating a petition to clean up the neighborhood. And, well, you get the idea.
But why, you may ask, are conservatives so set on this insensate amendment? The answer is at once simple and complex. American conservatism always has been plagued by an irrational distaste for homosexuality, a robust and righteous hate for the sin that cannot help extending to the sinner. And this has made it well-nigh impossible for the right to see anything but corrosive evil in the gay lobby's push for equal access to heterosexual privilege.
There is no good, objective reason to believe that legalizing gay marriage would adversely affect traditional marriage, just as there is no good reason to believe that restricting marriage to a man and a woman would resuscitate an institution whose problems are human, not cultural. The sex of spouses has nothing to do with why relationships fail. They fail for lack of love or, more precisely, for lack of understanding what love is and what it entails over the long haul.
A constitutional amendment that purports to protect marriage will do nothing for the chronic human inability to love in sickness and in health. To think otherwise is naive. Moreover, to blame a third party for one's conjugal failings is exceedingly uncharitable, not to mention obtuse. But then, that's the nature of blind prejudice.