Here's the thing: I don't, actually, care what you call it. Some people have suggested that the way to go is to actually turn every civil marriage into a civil union, and to let religious institutions designate whatever couplings they find legitimate marriages. This strikes me as a good suggestion, and one that elides the kind of definition-changing that many conservative opponents of gay marriage find so scary. I've read that some proponents of gay marriage say that they will sue for the right to be married by particular denominations or churches if given the legal right to marry, though this may be just scare-tactics from those opposed to same sex marriage. I hope that's the case, as suing a church to force it to recognize your marriage strikes me as a tactical disaster and a philosophical injustice. I would prefer that religious organizations recognize same sex marriage, but then, religious organizations and I tend to have little to do with one another, and as long as we are to respect any notion of free religion at all, the freedom to give sacraments or similar is an elementary aspect of that freedom.
Whatever you want to call it, though, this is the bottom line for me: from the state's end, it has to be called the same thing for heterosexual couples as homosexual couples, or it simply isn't an equal relationship. Separate is inherently unequal. Many people have said they support civil unions for same sex couples and marriage for heterosexual couples, with the two institutions being functionally identical-- so what's the big deal? The big deal is that the division therefore exists solely to differentiate, and thus to degrade, the same sex institution. From the state, it's either civil unions for everybody, or marriages for everybody, but not one for one group and another for the other group. Not if we honor our commitments to equal protection and equal rights under the law. For the religious designation, that's between you and your church and your god.
I bring this up because many people see marriage, as Helen does, as bound up in child-rearing and traditional gender norms. The problem is that many people, straight or gay, don't particularly give a shit about child-rearing or traditional gender norms, thanks, and will be subverting them anyway. The difference is that the straight couple gets to subvert them from inside marriage and the gay couple doesn't. This is yet another example of a situation where cultural conservatives are trying to use form and rules to fight a battle that was won in psychology and culture long ago. Respect for traditional gender roles and traditional notions of marriage can't be enforced; you can calcify the institution and draw the boundaries so that you're excluding gay people who might undermine them, but the straights inside are doing a very fine job of undermining all on their own. Conservatives love to say that government can't do everything, and they're right. One of the things government can't do is force people to respect norms and codes that they don't want to.
Look, I'm on record as being a passionate defender of both marriage and romantic love. I wish more people would live out the philosophical tenets implied in their marriage oaths. But those things can't be enforced, and never could be, not by law, morality or religion. Only the individual respect for fidelity and individual love for one's partner can create the kinds of attitudes I want people to show towards their marriages, and I find respect for fidelity and love for one's partner to be attributes shared by both some straight and some gay people. And I really can't understand how belief in same-sex marriage means that we're denying gender difference. Sure, there are important differences between the genders. I still think any adult should be able to marry any adult. Where's the contradiction? Helen is adamant that the genders are different but doesn't do us the favor of describing why, exactly, gender difference disqualifies same sex marriage.
A culture that cannot acknowledge gender differences has hobbled itself: it can’t speak the truth and, if we know one thing about truth, it’s that it always comes out one way or another. If we can’t talk about gender, we can’t develop helpful ways to deal with it; if we can’t deal with it, we guarantee that, when gender differences do surface, it will be in unhealthy ways. If gay marriage consigns us to that slow, unpleasant declension—and it does—it’s something to think twice about.Uh, why does gay marriage consign us to that slow, unpleasant declension? I don't understand how boys and girls being different means a boy can't marry a boy. Yes, gender differences, being to one degree or another matters of physiology, will always be with us. But marriage is a human institution, and we can change it if we want, and in fact must if we don't want it do die. If the idea is merely that only a woman can fulfill traditional ideas of what it means to be a wife, again, there are many, many women who are in marriages and are not fulfilling traditional ideas of what it means to be a wife. So why discriminate? Here, again, I think the train has left the station, but social conservatives want to persist to keep up appearances. It's like the woman in a shattered and loveless marriage who still puts out the fine China. You can go through the paces if you'd like, but you can't change the actually salient issue. For all of their skepticism about government, many cultural conservatives sure put a lot more faith in legal distinctions to produce cultural consequences than they should.
All of this assumes, anyway, that gay people aren't interested in fulfilling the conventional marriage norms. Some aren't. Some are. Some do, in fact, have remarkably pedestrian (some would say boring, though I wouldn't) desires for lifelong monogamy and child-raising. I think people who desire a healthy modern state of marriage should welcome them into the institution, or else they honor only form and not spirit. But even if you don't approve, the way forward remains blissfully simple-- leave them alone, live your life, let them live theirs. What a country, huh?