The Bittersweet Victory: Why Gay Marriage Still Isn't Marriage

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Edward Keating / Contact Press Images for TIME

Revellers during the 2011 NYC LGBT Pride March, on the streets of Manhattan, June 26, 2011.

I woke up Saturday morning to discover that, despite my best efforts, I was still only married to my job.

I had spent part of Friday night in Greenwich Village with the crowds outside the Stonewall Inn celebrating the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State. I proposed to several passersby but every single one laughed. The thumping of "Y.M.C.A." on an adjacent boombox killed any possibility of romance. (Why is that song always played at weddings?)

I had wandered down from a party about 10 blocks north, in Chelsea, one of New York City's gay enclaves. The gathering at that apartment was slightly surreal. It appeared to be familiar: handsome young men flirting with one another over sweets and alcohol. But now they had a complex new dimension to navigate — albeit the kind of calculus that heterosexuals can do in their sleep. Or when they sleep with one another. Or when they wake up and discover who they slept with. It's the possibility of marriage, lurking subtly somewhere in one's head. Imagine all the psycho-sexual-financial-commercial-legal dramas that will emerge as that little formula weaves itself into the lives of gay New Yorkers. Soon, we can have the kind of domestic life straight people have. One day, we may no longer even be gay. Just the people next door. No more parades.

Of course, that's not going to happen soon. No matter that New York is the largest state in the U.S. to hold that the union of a man and a man or a woman and a woman is equal to that of a man and a woman. California, the largest state in the U.S., held that distinction for a few months, until electoral and judicial jiujitsu tied same-sex marriage up in knots there. There are 44 more states to go and a rowdy presidential campaign season that is bound to roil a whole range of political bases. And who knows how the legalization of gay marriage in New York, because it is New York, could affect marriage equality across the country? Could an exodus of gay people from the rest of the U.S. to the Empire State sap the will (and pocketbooks) of campaigns to legalize marriage in, say, Missouri or Minnesota or Kansas? Just saying.

But in one very important way, gay marriage will not quite be marriage even in New York, even 30 days from now when the law goes into effect. That is because the psycho-sexual-financial-commercial-legal dramas that entangle the domestic lives of straight people often have another component: religion. And religious institutions have an exemption in the new law over accommodating gay people. It was key to the passage of the legislation.

Marriage without a church or temple wedding isn't the real thing. Why can some people have all the bells and whistles in the church of their choice but not me? Of course, there have been and will be congregations and churches that allow gay men and lesbians to be married in their midst and to bless those unions, recognizing that God loves them just as much as Governor Andrew Cuomo does. But some rich and influential religious institutions are not only free to continue to reject gay men and women as equal beneficiaries of all aspects of faith but will now also rally their congregants to reject politicians who are willing to abide with this extension of secular civil rights — no matter how much acceptance there is of same-sex marriage elsewhere, no matter how many wedding announcements appear in the New York Times.

I write this as a deeply religious Christian who is pained that the church that otherwise provides me with so much spiritual comfort and joy will never allow me to marry within its walls. Some clerics may be "liberal" enough to turn a blind eye to gay relationships so long as they do not have to recognize them, much less grant them any kind of imprimatur. And as of now, even in New York, religious institutions cannot be compelled to perform such a simple act of charity.

The state cannot force a church to change its beliefs. Even gay people realize that is wrong. And so, just to remind folks that we're here, we will have to continue to march in parades and sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Nonetheless, waking up Saturday morning, I was very happy not to be in Kansas anymore.