The Gay Marriage Battle Revisited

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Early next month the culture wars will return to Capitol Hill when Senate leaders are expected, for the second time in two years, to consider a measure to amend the Constitution to limit marriage eligibility to "one man and one woman." The battle over gay marriage has been off the radar screens for a while, but, two years after Massachusetts became the first stage to legalize gay marriage, expect the old rhetoric to resurface.

Both supporters and opponents of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment sound similarly dire alarms — about the need to either (a) "preserve the sanctity of marriage" or (b) "avoid enshrining discrimination into the Constitution." Though no one expects the amendment to pass, nothing can rally the Republicans' conservative base more quickly than a revived clarion call about the threat of moral decay embodied by same-sex marriages. And the base has been galvanized. In 2004, 13 states amended their constitutions to exclude gays from marrying. At least seven more will put anti-gay marriage measures on the ballot this November.

In the meantime, during previous legislative and electoral battles, opponents warned about what would happen if gays had the right to marry — the threats to conventional marriage, a weakening of the family, the meltdown of society as we know it. Yet as hard as social conservatives have trolled for evidence of fissures in the heavens, the sky has not yet fallen over Massachusetts, where more than 7,000 same-sex couples have legally married since May 17, 2004. In fact, this time around, Senate lawmakers have more than rhethoric; they have some scientific data collected and analyzed by academic researchers about what it's really like in a state that actually allows gays to marry.

In its pioneering study of 51 gay Massachusetts couples — 36 of whom have married — research scientists with the Wellesley Centers for Women found that, while all the study participants enthusiastically supported the change in the law, many expressed caution about their own personal decision on whether to marry. They wanted to tie the knot for the "right" reasons, not to "make a political statement or be part of history."

They welcomed the new insurance and inheritance rights granted by the Massachusetts law, but they reported unexpected benefits as well. Some found that their own parents or other relatives previously hostile to their sexual orientation became more accepting once the couple received the legitimacy conferred by legal marriage. Others reported heterosexual coworkers to be surprisingly affirming — organizing showers, sending gifts, even offering advice about the wedded life. For one newly married gay man, "it was like I was being ushered into the fraternity of husbands" at the office.

All 14 couples with children in the Massachusetts study said they got married explicitly seeking the benefits afforded by the state to keep their families secure. Yet the kids generally took it in stride. Said Tracy, 13, about her two dads' wedding: "It didn't really change anything for me 'cause I was already so used to living with them." What stood out most about the day, for Tracy, was that her 10-year-old brother, the ring bearer, didn't trip and fall as he walked down the aisle — though she wanted him to. "That'd be really funny," she said.

Note to Senators: gay marriage in Massachusetts hasn't changed much, least of all sibling rivalry.