A Bush wedgie

How is the institution of marriage faring in 2004? Just a month ago, we’d answer with a reality-TV update from Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? or My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. Or maybe we’d cite Britney Spears’ warp-speed marriage-slash-divorce in Las Vegas. If we had to eschew pop-culture references altogether, we could offer the truth that the institution’s failure rate endures—a clear majority of marriages still end in divorce. But now we must answer the question by talking about same-sex marriage and its effects.

Question to America: How can gay and lesbian people possibly damage the institution of marriage more than it has been damaged by heterosexuals already?

Answer: They can’t.

Still, here it comes anyway—Wedge Issue 2004—wherein the topic of gay marriage will polarize everybody into armed, divergent camps right as we go into the national debate in which we’re actually supposed to be making important, sweeping choices about the future of our nation.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom forced the issue by making marriage licenses available to understandably ecstatic same-sex couples. Next, President Bush countered with an altogether divisive stand seeking a constitutional amendment on the matter. “The most fundamental institution of civilization” will be permanently damaged, he wrongly believes, if the government doesn’t stop those radical judges from marrying those scary gays and lesbians. Bush obviously was pandering to the far right’s fears.

So, suddenly the same-sex marriage issue has turned into fodder in the presidential race. Leading Democratic contender Senator John Kerry says the matter should be left to the states and accuses Bush of playing politics and dividing the country. But he and the Democrats suddenly will be made to talk plenty more about this polarizing issue, and less about Bush’s failings, before Election Day.

In California, the same-sex marriage issue already has become a wedge one in the U.S. Senate race, with Republican Bill Jones storming against gay marriage, and Senator Barbara Boxer walking a fine political line by opposing Bush’s amendment but supporting current state law granting “domestic partnerships” but not gay marriage. Of course, Boxer’s position has caused many stalwart supporters to forget all the other reasons they like her and condemn her for not defending same-sex marriages. (Hint: That’s exactly what wedge issues are intended to do.)

“Marriage is a sacred institution” and needs to be defended, said Bush. But defended against what, we wonder. Happy gay people? And since when is the government supposed to tell us what is and isn’t sacred? Ultimately, same-sex marriage is simply about expanding rights, about ending discrimination. It should be supported, of course. It has to be. But make no mistake: Here is a subject that will further widen an already angry split in our country. A new wedge issue has been born, and we’ll all be feeling the relentless pounding from the right through the November election.