When my friends asked one another if they "wanted to get married someday," it was always an abstract question. They weren't asking whether I, an individual with a history and a personality and particular desires, wanted to make a commitment to someone, a person with an equally singular identity. They were using "marry" as an intransitive verb. The question might as well have been, "Do you want to participate in the institution of marriage, with all the religious, political, and historical baggage those words imply?"
I was an uptight teenager; my aesthetics were austere, my morals inflexible, and my free time was spent exposing hypocrisies (as though hypocrisy had never been exposed before). So it's not surprising that I found it grotesque to want "to get married"--with all that syntax conjures, from the big, aesthetically dubious wedding ceremony to the vague notion of joining an institution. It didn't take long before I concluded that it was an ethical travesty to get married for ostensibly personal reasons (that's directed at you, Sean Nelson) while ignoring the greater implications of the very public act you're engaging in.
After all, without the public ceremony--whether it takes place on the civil stage of the justice of the peace or in the religious theater of an altar--marriage might as well stop at the exchange of engagement rings. And while I recognized there were positive aspects to a public declaration of commitment, I found much of the traditional marriage ceremony abhorrent. I understood even then that when the father of the bride gives his daughter away, he is embracing his role as an owner with the right to dispose of his property as he chooses. I hated the fact that when a woman wears white to her wedding, she implicitly consents to the notion that female sexuality is impure and that chastity is something she should at least pantomime if not practice.
Since I attended an all-girls Catholic high school conveniently located in Seattle's gayest neighborhood, I was forced to confront issues regarding sexuality and marriage in an unusually direct way. The first semester of my freshman year a sophomore addressed our class about being an out lesbian in a Catholic institution, and the next semester we read a sex education textbook authored by a nun. One week, my friends and I went to Broadway to sell chocolate for a school fundraiser (lines like "Buy Valentine's candy for your girlfriend--or boyfriend!" really loosened guys' wallets), and the next week, a theology teacher assigned us to plan the Scriptural readings for our weddings (I'm not kidding). The double standard got to me fast, and by the time I left high school I was thoroughly fed up with the subtle flaws and outright discrimination built into the institution of marriage.
Now that gay marriage is perfectly legal in other countries and para-legitimate in many U.S. municipalities, my personal distaste for heterosexual marriage has hardened into conviction. In the recent past, getting married to a partner of the opposite sex with the full knowledge that the same act was explicitly proscribed for same-sex couples was wrong, but it was wrong in a circumstantial way. Then, a decision to get married was analogous to the following hypothetical situation: A white woman in the 1940s segregated South chooses to sit in the front of a packed bus. She isn't really aware that she is exercising an immoral privilege because the circumstances of her upbringing and socialization have conspired to keep her in the dark. But in the parti-cular historical moment of Seattle, 2004, straight people don't have that excuse. It would be as if this white woman were getting on the bus not in the '40s, but in Montgomery in 1956. With the bus boycott and its attendant publicity in full swing, she enters the bus and takes her customary seat at the front. All the information is at her disposal, and when she makes this selfish choice she consciously perpetuates a horrifying inequality.
No one, including Sean Nelson, can be excused for remaining ignorant of the fact that marriage as it is presently defined by the United States is a privilege restricted to a certain class of people. It is a privilege with psychological, material, and social benefits, which have already been enumerated in countless other forums. (Married couples enjoy over one thousand federal benefits.) If you're not consciously pursuing these benefits, then great, you're probably getting married for the right reasons. But it hardly matters--the wrong reasons are chasing you, and you will take advantage of most of them regardless of your best intentions. Marriage isn't all petunias (what's so great about sitting in the front of the bus, anyway?), but the very fact of its selective, discriminatory implementation is enough to condemn its current incarnation.
If gay marriage is legalized, many--though not all--of my objections to marriage would be resolved. I wouldn't suddenly want "to get married," but I might someday be open to marrying someone in the transitive sense of the word. It would still bother me that, among the many sensible entitlements that married couples benefit from (laws regarding hospital visitation and child custody and inheritance), there are many more that reward married people just for being married. Society makes sacrifices to encourage people to sort themselves into groups of twos (the loss of tax revenue being the most obvious example), and those people who remain single--whether by choice or chance--are obligated to make up the difference.
As a sort of parting shot, which isn't at all reasonable or objective, I should mention that I was Sean Nelson's intern when he took the honeymoon trip to Fiji he mentions in his piece. I took over many of his responsibilities at this very paper while he was enjoying his honeymoon, expanding my 15-hour-per-week internship to a month-long, unremunerated temp job (okay, I eventually received a stipend for my toil and trouble). The institution of marriage has costs for society, and whether he feels comfortable with the fact or not, the benefits Sean's marriage afforded him had a material cost for me. The bastard. *