Whom to blame? In part, homosexual couples like me and my partner. Cohabitation used to be stigmatized. "Living in sin" it has been called in recent memory, even among the educated classes. Today cohabitation is often viewed as a different-but-equal alternative to wedlock. Although the drift toward cohabitation would no doubt have happened anyway, the growing visibility and acceptance of same-sex couples probably speeded the change. As one gay activist told the Los Angeles Times last year, "Just the term 'unmarried partner' gave it a dignity and social category."
So (conservatives say) it's true! Homosexuals undermine marriage! To the contrary. The culprit is not the presence of same-sex couples; it is the absence of same-sex marriage.
The emergence into the open of same-sex relationships is an irreversible fact in this country. Traditionalists may not like it, but they cannot change it, so they will have to decide how to deal with it. The far right's plan—try to push homosexuals back into the closet—is not going to work; the majority of Americans are too openhearted for that. Indeed, the currents of public opinion are running the other way. An annual survey of college freshmen found that last year 58 percent—a record high, and up from 51 percent in 1997—thought that same-sex couples should be able to marry.
Seeing those numbers and others like them, conservatives are desperate to stave off same-sex marriage. For that matter, many moderates remain queasy about legalizing gay marriage; they are sympathetic to homosexuals, but not that sympathetic. Liberation-minded leftists, who spent the 1970s telling us that our parents' marriages were outdated and stuffy, were never crazy about matrimony to begin with. As for gays, the vast majority want the right to marry, but most agree that domestic-partner benefits and other "marriage-lite" arrangements are a lot better than nothing.
The result is the ABM Pact: Anything But Marriage. Enroll same-sex partners in the company health plan, give them some of the legal prerogatives of spousehood, attend their commitment ceremonies, let them register at city hall as partners—just DON'T CALL IT MARRIAGE. In America, and in Europe, too, ABM is rapidly establishing itself as the compromise of choice. Gay partnerships get some social and legal recognition, marriage remains the union of man and woman, and everybody moves on. A shrewd social bargain, no?
No. The last thing supporters of marriage should be doing is setting up an assortment of alternatives, but that is exactly what the ABM Pact does, and not only for gays. Every year more companies and governments (at the state and local level) grant marriagelike benefits to cohabiting partners: "concessions fought for and won mostly by gay groups," as the Los Angeles Times notes, "but enjoyed as well by the much larger population of heterosexual unmarried couples." To which might be added what I think of as the Will & Grace effect: homosexuals are here, we're queer, and nowadays we're kind of cool. ABM, perversely, turns one of the country's more culturally visible minorities into an advertisement for just how cool and successful life outside of wedlock can be.