For Better Or For Worse

1. a)to join as husband and wife; unite in wedlock b) to join (a man) to a woman as her husband, or (a woman) to a man as his wife ..MR0-

Say "marry" and the mind turns to three-tiered cakes, bridal gowns, baby carriages. Meanings do change-until the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws in 1967, many states defined marriage as a union of people "of the same race." But the notion that the happy couple would consist of a bride and groom has seemed sacrosanct. Now even that truth is not self-evident. In what may be the last frontier of the Stonewall revolution, some homosexuals have stepped up demands for legal marriage-a prospect that divides gays, appalls conservatives and makes even self-avowed liberals squirm.

Perhaps gay marriage isn't a phenomenon whose time has come-but it seems to have gotten closer. During last month's massive gay-rights march in Washington, 1,500 homosexual couples participated in a "wedding" replete with ministers and rice. The vows weren't binding, but the point was made. "My parents were together for 30 years. Patrick's have been together almost as long," says Craig Dean, who formed the "Equal Marriage Rights Fund" with his lover Patrick Gill after they were denied a marriage license two years ago. "We want to continue our lives that way." Their chances just improved: two weeks ago, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the ban on same-sex unions probably violates the state constitution, which could pave the way for such marriages elsewhere.

The legal hurdles to gay marriage are nothing compared to the social and religious obstacles. Like abortion, homosexuality inspires ambivalence and confusion. Though attitudes toward gay rights have generally become more liberal, a recent Washington Post poll found that 70 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. Only 53 percent oppose homosexual relationships between consenting adults. Among conservative Christians, the case against gay marriage is unambiguous: given the belief that marriage exists for procreation, it follows that homosexual unions are unnatural. "You see on the posters at protest meetings, 'God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,"' says Stanton Jones, a psychology professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. "I hate that kind of low-brow presentation. But God made two sorts of people, and really did have something purposeful in mind." Without citing higher authority, social conservatives tend to agree that marriage is intrinsically straight. "Societies privilege heterosexual marriage principally because it [creates] enduring mother-father child-raising units," says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values. "Homosexual marriages, whatever their advantages, do not serve this purpose."

Or do they? Not all straights keep their wedding vows, giving the lie to the idea that marriage means monogamy. Almost one-half of marriages will end in divorce. Many straight couples don't even want kids. But more and more homosexual pairs are becoming parents, which creates a paradox: if gays can have children but cannot marry, what kind of bastardized definition of family is society imposing on their offspring? When Phyllis Burke, a lesbian activist from San Francisco, petitioned California to adopt her lover's son, she got a positive review from the social worker but was turned down-because she wasn't married. A court ultimately granted the adoption.

Not all homosexuals want to walk down the aisle. "Some people in the gay community look at marriage as a heterosexual institution with a very disreputable past, and want no part of it," says New York Law School professor Arthur Leonard, author of "Sexuality and the Law." But AIDS has forced some second thoughts. Gays discovered that in sickness and in health, they couldn't count on the same protections that married couples take for granted-insurance benefits, bereavement leaves and inheritance rights. A score of cities now have domestic-partnership ordinances that entitle the unmarried partners of municipal employees-gay or straight-to certain spousal benefits. Although gays consider such measures significant, many activists believe they do not go far enough. "Domestic partnership," says Thomas B. Stoddard, a lawyer now spearheading the lobbying effort for gays in the military "is, for better or worse, second-class citizenship."

And, for better or worse, it lacks the symbolic wallop of marriage. "Gays and lesbians are raised in the same culture [as] everybody else," says gay historian Eric Marcus. "When they settle down they want gold bands, they want legal documents, they want kids." Perhaps a society that has faulted gay promiscuity ought to foster such commitment. But must it be marriage? "Call it something else," says University of Chicago divinity professor Martin Marty. "Let them covenant, let them bond, let them promise." What's in a word? When it's "marriage," a multitude of meanings and, now, controversy.