Putting gay marriage in perspective

So the New York State government rejects same-sex marriage by eight votes, thus each and every gay New Yorker is disappointed. That’s the story, right? We’re all flailing in the streets being fabulously despondent?

Not so fast.

What about those of us for whom passage of the Domestic Relations Law would have been bittersweet? What about gays like me who do not wholeheartedly support gay marriage?

It’s not that I don’t support equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation. I do—but equal rights does not have to mean marriage. For most of us, this is not something we have questioned, but it’s true. Marriage is not the only way to recognize a relationship between non-related adults, regardless of sexual orientation.

"Marriage as a family form is not more important or valuable than other forms of family, so the law should not give it more value," said American University law professor Nancy Polikoff in her 2008 book "Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage."

And Polikoff is right, there are other options. For instance, there are civil unions, domestic partnerships, common-law marriages or good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness cohabitation, just to name the popular ones.

And let’s not forget that marriage has become a form of social control. Journalist Judith Levine writes that marriage "is intrinsically conservative. It does not just normalize, it requires normality as the ticket in."

What Levine has hit on is that marriage is society’s way of making you who they want you to be, using the soft control, offering you the carrot of rights if you’ll just come quietly and do it their way. The question we should really be asking is not if gays should be getting married, but why we allow the government to designate who gets what rights based on what criterion.

So why do we accept the marriage straightjacket?

Marriage advocates argue that marriage is right because it’s been around since before ancient Sumeria. But we have traded up on plenty of institutions since then. When is the last time you bundled up the kids and took them down to the ziggurat to read the latest cuneiform?

That’s not to say marriage should be done away with, but it should be just one of many options for people of diverse sexual orientations. This is an argument for choice. Let the people decide how they want to arrange themselves. No one honestly believes that individuals derive their rights from the government (and not the other way around)—but that’s essentially what we buy into with state-sanctioned marriage.