"By all means dress in ridiculous togs, exchange rings and kisses ... but call it a wedding ... with nothing theological about it -- and leave marriage to those who still believe in its sanctity." -- -- Brian Sewell
I did a London radio show two years ago with the gentleman quoted above. He is an old British art critic, famous for his acerbic tongue. Also on the program was a young gay female comedian who talked about wanting to get legally married.
As she spoke, Sewell harshly interrupted.
"Why should you get married?" he barked.
"I want to get married."
"You may want to, but marriage is a sacrament --"
"One of seven sacraments --"
"Which those of us who have any kind of background in the church are required to have respect for!"
She grew upset. Her face reddened. I thought, well, here's the war in a nutshell, pro-gay, anti-gay.
Only minutes later, when the program turned to Sewell, I discovered that not only was he gay, but has referred to himself as "queer as they come" and has written about his sexual experiences in a book.
Which is when I had my "aha" moment: I may never fully understand the same-sex marriage issue.
For some, it's about the Bible. And there are certainly biblical passages decrying homosexuality. But there are also passages that detail polygamy, and I don't hear them quoted very often.
For some it's about legal rights -- health benefits, inheritance laws. But even critics of gay marriage seem to have little problem with such things.
Mostly, I believe, it is about that word. Marriage. We're married. They got married. The word, its meaning, its appearance on a piece of paper -- a "marriage certificate" -- is precious to people. So much so, that many who traditionally employed it as a union between a man and a woman took to the polls to say so.
Voters did that in Michigan in 2004. We inserted into our constitution the following sentence: "To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose."
Largely because of those last few words, a lawsuit arose. It focused on gay adoption. The case gained velocity. And Friday, the federal judge who heard it ruled that our implied ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional.
And so, for several hours, we lived in a state where, like 17 other states, gay couples could marry. Dozens did so Saturday morning, in courthouses that somehow magically opened even though they don't have Saturday hours. (Can someone explain that?) And then a stay was issued, at least temporarily halting the process.
Are we better off for this ruling? Certainly the media reaction suggests we are -- with heartwarming tales about couples finally having their dreams come true.
I have a different take. I wish as much emphasis was being put on staying married as getting married.
We live in a country where nearly half of marriages break up. And if you think that will be any different in gay marriages, think again. People are people. Fights, losing interest, losing passion, finding someone else -- do you think this is the sole purview of heterosexuality?
While we are consumed with who gets to get married, many nations are losing interest in the institution. In France, the Netherlands -- even Italy, with its stereotype of the big family -- marriage is becoming passe. Why burden themselves with vows and commitments?
I fear, once this current debate is settled, we will head that way, as well. There's a case right now in the Michigan Supreme Court in which the child of a lesbian couple that split up was forbidden by the biological mother to see the non-biological mother. Critics lamented that if they were legally married, then divorced, the child and denied mother would have rights to see each other. So we're now using divorce to justify more marriage?
No wonder people are confused. In the end, folks just don't want to feel threatened or bullied. Many gays have long felt bullied by society; many heterosexuals now feel bullied by a new ideology.
And as I learned on that British radio show, there is no predicting who feels what.
The only thing we can be certain of is that all of this will land in the U.S. Supreme Court soon. Meanwhile, can we at least agree that, no matter what we think of someone else's marriage, we could all put more emphasis on our own?
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By MITCH ALBOM