As same-sex marriage is considered by the Supreme Court in two separate cases, both sides seem to agree that its champions have already won the larger battle.
Polls show increasing support for same-sex marriage, reaching 70 percent among Americans born after 1980. Several states have legalized it democratically; if California, whose 2008 ballot proposition defining marriage as an opposite-sex union is now being contested, had a chance for a do-over today, the proposition would almost certainly lose. Eventually, in one way or another, same-sex marriage will be the law of the land. But what will this mean for the future of marriage?
During the acrimonious debate of the past few years, traditionalists have predicted that allowing gays and lesbians to marry their partners will pave the way for everything from legalization of polygamy to marriages between adults and children (never mind that no one proposes decriminalizing child sexual abuse) or even humans and animals (as if the latter could enter legal contracts).
Meanwhile, same-sex marriage supporters typically dismiss as scaremongering any suggestion that marriage will change in significant ways, except to grant equal access. Some argue that same-sex marriage is a conservative shift that will fully integrate gays and lesbians into the traditional family.
But there are other possibilities. For instance, uncoupling marriage from childbearing (a phenomenon also driven by single parenthood), could end its special status. While procreation has never been a strict requirement for marriage in secular contexts, it is, historically, the reason marriage has enjoyed exclusive governmental and social protections. Without this factor, why should the state take interest in people's sexual and living arrangements? While marriage has social and psychological benefits, so do other, unregulated relationships such as friendship networks.
As the nature of marriage comes under scrutiny, we may see claims of discrimination from singles -- as well as demands for equality for more diverse families. If two siblings, cousins, or even best friends live together, and perhaps care jointly for children born outside wedlock, why shouldn't they have the same legal rights and benefits that married couples do? What about groups of adults who form a household?
Writing in the left-wing magazine The Nation, Tulane University political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry voices the hope that marriage equality will be the start of a broader transition to "a more inclusive recognition of the authentic and enduring ways that we connect ourselves to one another, without needing the words 'husband,' 'wife' or even 'spouse.' "
Harris-Perry urges equality advocates to push for such changes now that the battle for same-sex marriage essentially has been won. More conservative supporters of same-sex marriage will no doubt strongly disagree, especially since Harris-Perry implies that the demand for simple inclusion in marriage was a strategy to win popular support.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who seems supportive of the full acceptance of same-sex unions, said that this change would take us into "uncharted waters." He is right; until very recently, the core definition of marriage in every society always included the male-female union. Of course, other once-universal features of the social order, such as female subordination, have already changed. But all social revolutions have unpredictable consequences.
The best we can do is have a frank and open discussion of what lies in these uncharted waters -- and, above all, on making the journey safe for children. Unlike adults, they have no choice about their family arrangements.