This Week Obama Helped Traditional Marriage and North Carolina Hurt It

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Gay couples aren't going back in the closet. They're going to live together and raise families. If they wed, it strengthens conservative norms.

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Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell ya, brother:
You can't have one without the other.
-- Frank Sinatra, 1955

This week, voters in North Carolina, where same-sex marriage was already prohibited, passed a constitutional amendment against the practice, while President Obama, who wields no direct power over state marriage laws, finally affirmed that he favors full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

These were both symbolic moves. Social conservatives assert that North Carolinians were standing up for traditional marriage while Obama was betraying it, an analysis that they earnestly believe.

But there's something they don't understand.

Gays in North Carolina and everywhere else in the United States are never returning to the closet. Gay couples are going to be on television sitcoms, in movies, and dining at downtown restaurants on Saturday nights. Kids are going to have gay friends in school, and they're going to have straight friends with gay parents. As older people die and kids grow into teens and adults, acceptance of gays as normal is only going to increase. The question that remains is how these gay couples are going to live. When they live together or raise children together, are they going to marry?

Or are they going to cohabitate and raise kids together while unmarried?

If a majority of gays decide to marry, and are permitted to do so, traditional marriage will be strengthened -- because relative to the alternative, getting hitched is going to seem more like the thing you do when you think you want to spend your life with or raise kids with a romantic partner.

And if gays aren't permitted to marry?

What straight people are going to see is the loving gay couple who've lived in the house on the corner together for 40 years, take walks together each evening ... and aren't married to one another. They're going to see the two lovely women raising the adorable child in the first-grade class at the local elementary school ... who aren't married to one another. If opponents of gay marriage succeed -- if there are lots of gay couples who are never permitted to get married -- the affected gays and lesbians will still form longtime attachments and families, many of which will thrive.

What those families will be signalling to the straight people around them isn't "heterosexual marriage as described in the Bible is sacred." The cultural message that will be transmitted is the one Joni Mitchell sang about: "I don't need no piece of paper at the city hall/Keeping us tied and true."

That's why it's North Carolina voters who've unwittingly hurt traditional marriage with their actions this week. Whereas President Obama has helped traditional marriage by implicitly saying that getting married is valuable for people who want to start families or spend their lives together.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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