The New York Times Magazine | March 7, 2004
IN ENDORSING the passage of a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to the union of men and women, President Bush established himself as the country's most prominent advocate of same-sex marriage.
To be more precise, he established himself as the most prominent advocate of the best arguments for gay marriage, even as he roundly rejected gay marriage itself. Consider the words that he spoke in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 24.
The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution . . . honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith. Correct. Marriage is indeed the bedrock of civilization. But why would the establishment of gay matrimony erode it? Would millions of straight spouses flock to divorce court if they knew that gay couples, too, could wed? Today, a third of all American children are born out of wedlock, with no help from homosexual weddings; would the example gays set by marrying make those children's parents less likely to tie the knot?
Children, parents, childless adults and marriage itself are all better off when society sends a clear and unequivocal message that sex, love and marriage go together. Same-sex marriage affirms that message. It says that whether you're gay or straight -- or rich or poor, or religious or secular, or what have you -- marriage is the ultimate commitment for all: the destination to which loving relationships naturally aspire.
Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. Correct again. And the commitment of gay partners to love and serve each other promotes precisely those same goals.
A solitary individual lives on the frontier of vulnerability. Marriage creates kin, someone whose first ''job'' is to look after you. Gay people, like straight people, become ill or exhausted or despairing and need the comfort and support that marriage uniquely provides. Marriage can strengthen and stabilize their relationships and thereby strengthen the communities of which they are a part. Just as the president says, society benefits when people, including gay people, are durably committed to love and serve one another.
And children? According to the 2000 census, 27 percent of households headed by same-sex couples contain children. How could any pro-family conservative claim that those children are better off with unmarried parents?
Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society. By ''roots,'' Bush had in mind marriage's traditional definition as male-female. But at least as deep as marriage's roots in gender are its roots in commitment. Marriage takes its ultimate meaning not from whom it excludes but from what it obliges: ''To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.'' For gay people to join other Americans in embracing that vow only strengthens ''the good influence of society.''
Yes, letting same-sex couples wed would in some sense redefine marriage. Until a decade ago, no Western society had ever embraced or, for the most part, even imagined same-sex marriage. But until recently, no Western society had ever understood, to the extent most Americans do today, that a small and more or less constant share of the population is homosexual by nature. Homosexuals aren't just misbehaving heterosexuals. Fooling straight people into marrying them is not an option. Barring them from the blessings of marriage is inhumane and unfair, even if that is a truth our grandparents did not understand.
So today's real choice is not whether to redefine marriage but how to do so: as a club only heterosexuals can join or as the noblest promise two people can make. To define marriage as discrimination would defend its boundaries by undermining its foundation.
Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all. Correct yet again. A marriage license uniquely bestows many hundreds of entitlements and entanglements that publicly affirm the spouses' mutual responsibility and that provide them with the tools they need to care for each other. Far from being just a piece of paper, a marriage license both ratifies and fortifies a couple's bonds. And marriage, like voting and other core civic responsibilities, is strongest when universal. It best serves the interests of all when all are eligible and welcome to serve.
Our government should respect every person and protect the institution of marriage. There is no contradiction between these responsibilities. Indeed, there is not. Allowing and expecting marriage for all Americans would show respect for the welfare and equality of all Americans, and it would protect the institution of marriage from the proliferation of alternatives (civil unions, domestic-partner benefits and socially approved cohabitation) that a continued ban on same-sex marriage will inevitably bring -- is, in fact, bringing already.
The logic of Bush's speech points clearly toward marriage for all. It is this logic, the logic of marriage itself, that Bush and other proponents of a constitutional ban defy in their determination to exclude homosexuals.
In all that lies ahead, let us match strong convictions with kindness and good will and decency. Amen. And let us have the courage to follow where our convictions and our compassion logically lead.