Today, the California Supreme Court has decided that, on equal protection grounds, the State cannot discriminate on gender when it comes to marriage. That’s a great victory for equality. While opponents will decry the changes such a decision will have on the institution of marriage, few have pondered what such a decision will mean for gay and lesbian culture.
I think we’ll see two changes, one’s a fad – gays are good at that – the other, a true shift in gay culture.
Between June 15 and November 3, 2008 it will be possible for anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, to get married in California. This summer, gays and lesbians will be coming to California to gain legal recognition of their relationships just as they did on Valentine’s weekend 2004 when San Francisco issued same-sex marriage licenses. And like that romantic weekend get-away, they had better make plans fast.
With a November 3rd Constitutional Amendment looming, the joy felt today will soon be replaced with a sense of urgency. On election day, the state’s voters will consider a ballot measure to rescind that right. Previous rulings in Hawaii and Massachusetts have not fared well once they’re out of the courthouse and in the political discourse.
But what good is a right if you cannot exercise it? The right to marriage on paper is nice, but knowing that that right might be lost may lead people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t. “Now we just need someone to marry!” one friend messaged me, pretty much summing up the conundrum facing gays and lesbians over the next six months.
In some respects, gay marriage in California is no different than the George Bush tax cuts. Inherit an estate in 2011, and pay nothing. A year later, your estate tax will go up to 65%, and a $3 million dollar estate becomes a $1 million inheritance. Imitating the Menendez brothers could be the cultural phenomenon of the new decade; worried about inheriting, too many folks may pull the trigger instead of waiting for nature to take its course.
Likewise, a gay or lesbian who may not be quite ready to make a commitment like marriage two weeks ago could feel that the opportunity is too good to pass up. The prospect of wasting the right to marry now must be balanced against the cold reality that the opportunity could be lost forever once the state’s voters have spoken. I see a summer filled with rice-tossing and bouquet-throwing in my future as friends pair up – just for the sake of getting married. Talk about your shotgun weddings!
Still, this rush to the altar may lead to one of the largest shifts in gay culture since the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969.
Until today, there has been no archetypical relationship for gays and lesbians across America. Nothing to look at and say “That’s what I want.” Only in tiny Massachusetts could a gay man like me even think about getting married and then consider with whom to form that union. This lack of a model or structure for legal, recognized partnerships created the impression that promiscuity was the norm for the gay community. And, I would argue, contributed to the spread of AIDS and other plagues on the gay community.
But today, all that has changed.
There is something higher to aspire to in gay relationships, and it is real, accessible, and free to all. The discussion about partnership shifts from “Mister Tonight” to “Mister Right.” It’s a change that can only be good for society, gay or otherwise. At least, for another six months.