This was the question posed repeatedly by Judge Vaughan Walker as the Proposition 8 trial got started in San Francisco last week. And it's one of those questions, like many issues in this trial, for which there's no perfect solution.
Theoretically, the answer should be yes. As long as the rules are consistent for everybody, gay and straight, then what the state calls its version of a legal union shouldn't matter.
But real life is not that simple. The fact is, the word "marriage" carries enormous power in our society, and that's not going to change any time soon.
The California Supreme Court recognized exactly this in their original decision legalizing gay marriage. They said it was “familiar and highly favored," and indicated a level of dignity no other word could match. In other words, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet, and “marriage” has a meaning all its own in our society.
I experience this personally every single day. When I say Phil is my husband, that gets a very different reaction -- a much more serious, respectful one -- than if I say he’s my partner or even my spouse. “Husband” and “marriage” confer importance, they represent the respect and acceptance of our legal, civil institutions.
And this brings up another kind of acceptance, something I never understood until I planned my own ceremony and took my vows in front of 120 of our friends, family, and supporters.
It's the acceptance of one's community. This, not any piece of paper, is what makes a marriage different from any other kind of relationship.
Phil and I were already committed to each other. We'd done that long before our wedding. But marriage involves a third partner. As we took our vows in front of all those people, they put their blessing on our union. They welcomed us as a new, joined member and reaffirmed that we were helping to uphold our community just as they did.
They didn't reaffirm our relationship. We didn't need that. They reaffirmed our role -- our importance -- among them.
This is why marriage is different. It’s a contract not just between the two people getting married, but between the two of them together and the community they’re becoming part of.
Ironically, the far right would no doubt agree on this point. But they refuse to acknowledge that Phil and I can add anything good to our community. They believe we don't have any value.
Our 120 guests who watched us get married know better. They clapped and laughed and ate and danced with us that day. And they've seen us, and what we bring to their lives, since then. We are important to our community. We help uphold it.Marriage matters. Every one of our 120 wedding guests can tell you that, and so can every single witness of every single one of California's 18,000 legal gay weddings. They see our value.