The New Face of Marriage; Americans Are Grappling with Same-Sex Marriage. but the Real Changes to the Institution Are Coming from Heterosexuals

By Kantrowitz, Barbara; Stone, Brad et al. | Newsweek International, March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

The New Face of Marriage; Americans Are Grappling with Same-Sex Marriage. but the Real Changes to the Institution Are Coming from Heterosexuals


Kantrowitz, Barbara, Stone, Brad, Wingert, Pat, Springen, Karen, Scelfo, Julie, Brown, Barry, Newsweek International


Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz, With Brad Stone, Pat Wingert, Karen Springen, Julie Scelfo, Barry Brown, Liat Radcliffe, Stefan Theil, Melissa Roberts, Kay Itoi, Mac Margolis, Peter Hudson and bureau reports

Los Angeles actresses Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante got married four years ago at a raucous wedding in New Jersey before 250 friends and family members. Even so, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing same-sex marriage licenses in mid-February--in open defiance of California law--the couple drove 650km north and waited in line for seven hours at city hall to tie the knot again. "Uncle Sam couldn't make it to our first wedding," says Armenante. "We thought it would be nice if he came to our second." They were among the more than 3,000 gay and lesbian couples that had exchanged vows by the end of last week, even though it's still not clear whether their marriages will stand up in court.

To supporters of gay rights, the scene was deeply moving: elderly men and women who had spent a lifetime waiting to make their unions legal, parents with infants in their arms, middle-aged lawyers and doctors. But to opponents, the peaceful scene was a provocative call to arms. American conservatives say San Francisco is proof of the anarchy they've predicted if officials act on their own before the legal debate over gay marriage is settled. "There are millions of Americans angry and disgusted by what they see on the TV--two brides, two grooms, but not a man and a woman," says Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, which is fighting the San Francisco marriages in court. "This is the new civil war in America."

The issue threatens to be a defining one in the current U.S. presidential election. Under pressure from his evangelical Christian supporters, President George W. Bush has been dancing around it for months. Although he keeps reiterating his view that marriage should be limited to the union of a man and a woman, he has stopped short of a full public endorsement of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex weddings. His most-likely Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, has said he opposes gay marriage but thinks the issue is up to each state to decide.

The debate is gaining momentum. Civil unions between same-sex couples are currently legal in only one state--Vermont--but at the end of last week officials in New Mexico's Sandoval County began issuing licenses to gays before being shut down by the state's attorney general. The next move will most likely be in court, not only in California, but also in Massachusetts, where the state's Supreme Judicial Court essentially legalized gay marriage in November. State officials have until mid-May to say how they will comply.

Much of the rest of the world is watching America's struggle with curiosity. In many places, same-sex marriage is simply a ho-hum issue. Last week even the 81-year-old king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, said that as a "liberal democracy," his country should allow gays and lesbians to marry. The Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriages, in 2001; Belgium followed earlier last year, as did two Canadian provinces, Ontario and British Columbia. In Brazil, stable gay and lesbian couples can inherit from each other and claim one another as dependents in tax returns. In the Argentine province Rio Negro and the capital of Buenos Aires, new laws allow registered gay couples to qualify for family welfare payments. While critics contend that same-sex weddings will destroy the "sanctity" of traditional unions, many scholars say that it's actually heterosexual couples who are radically redefining marriage. Many countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark and its province Greenland, have registered partnership laws that extend some benefits of marriage to unmarried couples, both gay and straight. Germany has quietly expanded rights for cohabitating couples, while in 1998, France approved the Pacte Civil de Solidarite--a kind of intermediate step between casual cohabitation and formal marriage that provides tax and health benefits. …

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