by Martha Barnette

from the March 9, 1998 Lexington Herald-Leader

This letter is reprinted with the permission of the author. I have added paragraph numbers for purposes of discussion. See The Debate Over Same-Sex Marriage.--J.G.

1] Those pushing a bill to ban same-sex marriage in Kentucky finally realize that under our constitutional system, the religious beliefs of some people -- or even most people -- are, by themselves, insufficient reason for government-sponsored discrimination against a certain group. In a country where we respect religious diversity -- and where many people of faith firmly support same-sex marriage -- the state must have a strong public policy reason if it's going to deny equal protection under the law to gay and lesbian couples.

2] So now they're scrambling to produce "philosophical" arguments for it. Problem is, every one of them is bogus.

3] Take the old standby, "Marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman." That's fine for the religious institution of marriage, but what's at issue here is the civil institution, through which the state provides access to legal rights and responsibilities that help couples care for each other through some of the most difficult and vulnerable points in any family's life. "But we've always done it this way" doesn't justify government discrimination against same-sex couples any more than it justifies any other type of discrimination in our past.

4] In fact, many other nations are already moving to end this inequity. Last month the Netherlands joined a growing list of countries that legally recognize same-sex relationships; South Africa is expected to soon.

5] In our own country, marriage has a history of becoming more fair and more inclusive, not less. It used to be that wives were legally their husbands' property, and prohibited from owning property themselves. People of African descent were once denied the right to marry at all, and just 30 years ago, many states prohibited marriages between different-race couples.

6] "But," some say, "if gay couples can wed, then what's to prevent a brother and sister marrying, or having two wives?" Plenty, namely all the other restrictions on marriage already in place. We have strong public policy reasons, for example, for those preventing marriages between biological family members. Just as removing the race restriction 30 years ago did nothing except end race discrimination in marriage, removing the sex restriction on marriage merely ends discrimination on the basis of sex. "But you'll destroy the very institution of marriage," some wail -- yet none seems quite able to explain how a civil institution will be destroyed if more law-abiding citizens say it's a good thing and line up take on its burdens (remember the marriage penalty?) as well as its benefits.

7] Then there's "Marriage is intended for procreation." So why issue marriage licenses to couples who don't plan to have children? Or to those who fall in love late in life? Besides, for one reason or another, many gay folks do have children. Lesbians, in fact, are almost as likely to have kids as non-gay women. A 1995 Yankelovich study, for example, found that 67% of lesbians and 72% of heterosexual women were parents.

8] Further, the overwhelming evidence shows that kids raised by same-sex partners turn out just as healthy, happy -- and if it matters to you -- just as heterosexual as anyone else's. The government's own experts in the Hawaii case -- those who were supposed to argue against same-sex marriage -- conceded that gay people can and do make "excellent" parents. Same-sex marriage, they admitted, won't hurt anyone else's marriage, and would help gay couples and their kids.

9] "You just want approval for the gay lifestyle." A civil marriage license isn't about giving a seal of approval to anyone's behavior -- it's about recognizing a fundamental right of citizenship. In our country, we let "bad people"get married all the time; the state routinely hands out marriage licenses to convicted rapists, incarcerated murderers, and spouse abusers. We don't approve of their behavior, but we let them marry precisely because the Supreme Court has declared that the freedom to marry is as fundamental a right of citizenship as freedom of speech or religion.

10] About that "gay lifestyle": Mine consists of things like working hard at my job, worrying over bills, walking my dog, paying my taxes, and a lifetime pledge of mutual responsibility and care for my partner. Of course, for those pushing this bill, the word "lifestyle" is actually code for something much more specific. I suspect, however, that most Kentuckians figure they have far more important things to think about than what goes on in the privacy of other folks' bedrooms.

11] "But same-sex marriage will lead to more AIDS." Will somebody please tell whoever's spreading this nonsense that homosexuality per se does not cause AIDS? Worldwide, the vast majority of AIDS cases result from heterosexual transmission, the key risk factors being unprotected sex -- heterosexual or homosexual -- and multiple partners. If legislators are serious about ending AIDS, why not allow same-sex partners equal access to a public institution that encourages committed, stable relationships? (Another reason this argument's particularly goofy: lesbians are in a much lower risk group for AIDS than non-gay women.)

12] Finally, "Why, of course you have the right to marry - marry someone of the opposite sex!" Only trouble is, it's essentially the argument once used to perpetuate race discrimination in marriage: "Why, of course, you can marry - just as long as you marry someone from this particular group over here." Just we ended race discrimination because it was unfair, it's time to end discrimination based on another innate characteristic - a person's sex because the choice of whom to marry is a profoundly personal one that belongs to the couple, not the government.

13] Rep. Greg Stumbo has demonstrated clear-headed leadership in standing up to a politically motivated bill that targets committed, loving couples and their kids and lacks any credible philosophical basis. Let's hope his colleagues don't keep pushing an unnecessary law that won't withstand judicial scrutiny -- and sticks Kentucky taxpayers with the bill for defending in court what's already been shown to be legally indefensible.

MARTHA BARNETTE is the author most recently of "Ladyfingers & Nun's Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names," (Times Books/Random House), and has been in a committed same-sex relationship for more than nine years.