McGreevey’s Marriage Problem — and Ours

First published August 15, 2004, in The New York Times.

What happened to Governor McGreevey - that is, James E. McGreevey, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, who announced his resignation on Aug. 12 because he was secretly gay and had "shamefully" conducted an extramarital affair - was strange, to say the least. Pundits wondered whether there would be broader ramifications for gay civil rights, same-sex marriage or American politics. I doubt it. A rich and seemingly unique concatenation of homosexuality, adultery, suspicions of political featherbedding, and rumors of extortion and sexual harassment made the McGreevey scandal look like an aberration.

What happened to Mr. McGreevey - the man, not the governor - was not strange at all. It was familiar to almost every gay American of Mr. McGreevey's generation. Marriage, not homosexuality, lies at the heart of it.

Mr. McGreevey is 47. I am 44. We have in common being among the early members of the post-Stonewall generation. We came of age in the 1970's, when overt expressions of anti-gay animus were becoming unacceptable in polite company. The worst of official repression was past. Vice-squad raids and scandalous arrests and federal witch hunts were not central fears in our lives. There was still plenty of unofficial discrimination and ugly and ignorant rhetoric, and we all feared the low-grade terrorism known as gay-bashing. But on the whole we were free, as no previous generation had been, to get on with our lives.

There was one thing, however, we knew we could never aspire to do, at least not as homosexuals. We could not marry.

By that I mean not just that gay couples could not marry. Self-acknowledged gay people - coupled or single, adult or adolescent, open or closeted - also could not hope to marry. The very concept of same-sex marriage had yet to surface in public debate. We grew up taking for granted that to be homosexual was to be alienated and isolated, not just for now but for life, from the culture of marriage and all the blessings it brings.

Social-science research has established beyond reasonable doubt that marriage, on average, makes people healthier, happier and financially better off. More than that, however, the prospect of marriage shapes our lives from the first crush, the first date, the first kiss. Even for people who do not eventually choose to marry, the prospect of marriage provides a destination for love and the expectation of a stable home in a welcoming community.

The gay-marriage debate is often conducted as if the whole issue were providing spousal health insurance and Social Security survivors' benefits for existing same-sex couples. All of that matters, but more important, and often overlooked, is the way in which alienation from marriage twists and damages gay souls. In my own case, I did not understand and acknowledge my homosexuality until well into adulthood, but I somehow understood even as a young boy that I would probably never marry. (Children understand marriage long before they understand sex or sexuality.) I coped by struggling for years to suppress every sexual and romantic urge. I convinced myself that I could never love anybody, until the strain of denial became too much to bear.

Others coped differently. Some threw themselves into rebellion against marriage and the bourgeois norms it seemed to represent. Some, to their credit, built firmly coupled gay lives without the social support and investment that marriage brings. And some, determined to lead "normal" lives (meaning, largely, married lives), married.

At what point Mr. McGreevey realized and acknowledged he was gay I don't know. I do know that many gay husbands begin by denying and end by deceiving. Perhaps that was so in his case.

Opponents of same-sex marriage sometimes insist that gays can marry. Marriage, they say, isn't all about sex. It can be about an abstinent, selfless love. Well, as Benjamin Franklin said, where there is marriage without love there will be love without marriage. I'm always startled when some of the same people who say that gays are too promiscuous and irresponsible to marry turn around and urge us into marriages that practically beg to end in adultery and recklessness.

For most human beings, the urge to find and marry one's other half is elemental. It is central to what most people regard as the good life. Gay people's lives are damaged when that aspiration is quashed, of course. Mr. McGreevey can probably attest to that. But so are the lives of spouses, of children. Mr. McGreevey can probably attest to that, too.

The country is still making up its mind about same-sex marriage. Massachusetts has it. Most states have pre-emptively banned it. On Aug. 12, the California Supreme Court invalidated about 4,000 same-sex marriages performed by the city of San Francisco, but gay-marriage advocates hope that this is a temporary setback. Through litigation now working its way through the system, California's highest court may yet overturn the state's gay-marriage ban.

The McGreevey debacle suggests why all Americans, gay and straight alike, have a stake in universalizing marriage. The greatest promise of same-sex marriage is not the tangible improvement it may bring to today's committed gay couples, but its potential to reinforce the message that marriage is the gold standard for human relationships: that adults and children and gays and straights and society and souls all flourish best when love, sex and marriage go together. Nothing will ever make the discovery of homosexual longings easy for a young person. But homosexuality need not mean growing up, as Jim McGreevey and I and many others did, torn between marriage and love.

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