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Marriage Can Be Expanded

Growth is possible to accommodate gays. The history of voting rights in the U.S. offers a model.

June 05, 2004|Sherman Stein

A quarter of a century ago, our then-teenage daughter, the youngest of our three children, announced that she was gay. Her revelation came as a shock, but the intervening years have given me time to reflect on homosexuality. I have slowly gone from that initial shock to acceptance, along the way reaching some insights.

In our world, the word "stranger" calls forth fear. For two people to shift from strangers to friends to devoted lifetime companions is practically a miracle. Society should encourage such commitments, which not only sustain two people but provide a firm foundation for our society.

All my life I had lived with the idea that "marriage" referred to a man and a woman. Now I wondered, why couldn't the gay world settle for "civil union" with all the legal benefits of marriage. Give us straight people time to adjust to "civil union," then gradually replace that word with "marriage." We need time to absorb new ideas.

I am in the 54th year of a happy marriage. I do not feel that my marriage is threatened by expanding the meaning of the word "marriage." No one is invading my home or kidnapping my wife or children. Nor is the institution of marriage threatened. That people of the same sex might unite in a bond of trust is a far less serious threat to the institution of marriage than the need for both partners to hold down full-time jobs.

Slowly or abruptly, the meanings of words change. Think of the word "vote. " Initially, the vote was restricted to men with property. Then it was expanded to include men who had established residency. By the beginning of the Civil War, almost all adult white males could vote. Next, with the passage of the 15th Amendment, blacks, in theory, had the right to vote. Women were granted the vote in 1920. Finally, the vote was extended to everyone 18 years old and over.

There is an underlying similarity between expanding the embrace of the word "vote" and expanding the embrace of the word "marriage." But there is also an important difference. Each time the right to vote was extended, those who already had that right were indeed threatened. They could still vote, but their vote had less impact. But permitting two people of the same sex to form a union graced by the word "marriage" does not jeopardize those already married. It does not dilute the strength of an existing marriage, just as expanding the right to vote did not dilute the value of existing votes.

I do not understand why some of us are heterosexual and others are homosexual. Why are two of my children heterosexual and one homosexual? After decades of research, it is agreed that people do not choose their sexual orientation. I hope that some day we will look upon sexual orientation with the same indifference we give to whether one is right- or left-handed. If we attain that state, we will all be living in a more compassionate world, one with less fear and animosity. Extending the meaning of the word "marriage" will not cause the straight to convert to gay, any more than it would the right-handed person to switch to left-handed.

If we were able to accept the ever-broadening meaning of the vote, which at each stage did threaten the existing order, we can surely absorb the extension of marriage, which will only strengthen the bonds that hold our society together.

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Sherman Stein is a retired mathematics professor.

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