First and most important, let us consider who has made it a topic: the people opposed to it. The people putting it on ballots, platforms, and advertising are people hoping to use it as a wedge issue to divide progressives. The rest of us have generally preferred to focus on things of much greater importance, like this disastrous mess of a war in Iraq. Naturally these types of topics aren’t as much fun for those people, since the politicians they’ve bought are for the most part the ones who got us into this mess in the first place.
Next we have a terminology problem. First, “gay” leaves out a lot of the people affected–lesbians, bis, trans, whatevers, and all the other kinds of non-traditional families. Second, “marriage” is missing the point: it’s not about a lacy veil and a march down the aisle of a flower-bedecked church, it’s about basic fairness in all manner of tax, inheritance, insurance, medical decision-making and hospital visitation rights, child custody laws, and so on.
Herewith my proposal.
Recognize that there are two separate issues: marriage and civil union.
Marriage is a religious institution with moral standing. Allow religious organizations the freedom to define for themselves what marriage is and who is eligible to participate. Allow people the freedom to choose for themselves whether to participate in religious organizations, to choose to join them or not, and to choose which other organizations’ marriages they will respect and honor. Marriage confers only those privileges and responsibilities defined by the organization. The means to dissolve or annul marriages or to disallow dissolution or annulment is also assigned to the marriage-granting institution to define and regulate. Marriage has no legal standing.
Civil union is a legal institution with legal standing. Allow the states and nation to define what civil union is and let a reading of the Constitution make clear that all are equally eligible to participate. Civil union confers legal and financial privileges and responsibilities and binds its members as legally and financially responsible for each other. The means to dissolve or annul civil unions or to disallow dissolution or annulment is also assigned to the state to define and regulate. Civil union has no moral standing.
Legal dependency is just that: legal dependency. My legal dependents are my natural-born or legally adopted children and anyone else for whom I take legal responsibility.
Keep church and state separate. Keep marriage and civil union separate.
If you want both marriage and civil union, get both. If you want one but not the other, get one.
I am free to persuade my church to marry me to my female partner, and if I succeed, we shall be married in the eyes of my church and our fellow congregants. If you don’t go to my church or respect my church, you are free to consider me unmarried. You don’t have to send me a wedding present or say congratulations, and you don’t have to send me a sympathy card if someday I am bereaved. If we have sexual relations, you are free to consider them adulterous, scandalous, promiscuous, fornicatory, and all other manner of immoral; I shall not.
However, if my partner and I have joined in civil union, whether or not we have been married, and I get in a car wreck, and you work at the hospital treating me, you must respect my partner’s input as you would any legal spouse’s. If you employ me, you must offer my partner and our dependents–be they our naturally-born or legally-adopted children, or our senile parents[-in-law], or our disabled siblings, or even the refugees on whom we have taken pity and for whom we have taken legal responsibility–same insurance benefits you offer to any legal partners and dependents. If you have rental property, you must consider our lease application on its merits. If you are a tax collector, you must offer us the same dizzying array of loopholes, gotchas, deductions, and messy choices as all the straight couples get–you must ding us or discount us the same as any other civilly-united couple filing jointly or separately.
I’m sick of this topic and wouldn’t mind never having to debate or write on it again. For those who want more, here’s some interesting reading from reasonable people: http://www.beyondmarriage.org/.