The Gay-Marriage Fight Could Change How People Think About All Marriages

Exploring the psychic impact of the movement in Maine, where voters recently legalized gay marriage

Joel Page/AP Images

It is impossible to talk or think about same-sex marriage without talking or thinking about marriage in general: what marriage is, what marriage used to be, who should marry, who should not, what constitutes a good marriage or a bad one. The Supreme Court suggested as much in its ruling on the DOMA case. In the majority opinion it observed that views on marriage are swiftly evolving and that the citizens and elected representatives of New York (the state where the plaintiff, Edith Windsor, lived with her late wife) had sought in permitting same-sex marriage to correct what they perceived to be "an injustice that they had not earlier known or understood." The Court suggested that until recently most people did view marriage as between a man and a woman, but that now this view is changing as many people develop a "new perspective, a new insight."

Reading the opinion, I couldn't help but think about the fact that New York, in the 19th century, was one of the first states in the U.S. to pass a law permitting women the right to own property in marriage. Perspectives on marriage were changing then, too, away from an idea that wives should be submissive (and financially dependent) and husbands authoritarian (and financially empowered). The same-sex marriage movement represents an evolution in our understanding about marriage and roles within it. The fact that overall the move has been toward greater egalitarianism may be one reason why more women are in favor of same-sex marriage than men. According to the latest polling by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of men and 71 percent of women, support legal agreements for gay men and lesbians that would give them many of the rights of heterosexual married couples.

The question then becomes: How will people in their personal lives be affected by this prolonged and emotional national conversation? Earlier this year, I walked door to door in Maine to try to get answers to this question. Some months before that, in 2012, a small army of canvassers had fanned out in the streets and neighborhoods and cul de sacs of that state. They knocked on doors and stood in living rooms, lingered at evening and weekend barbecues. In an effort--ultimately successful--to convince a majority of Maine voters to support gay marriage, the canvassers engaged the entire state, or much of it, in a conversation about the institution in both broad and intimate terms. I revisited some of these households, curious to see how people's thinking was affected: What had been the psychic impact of the gay marriage movement?

The street I walked down was in Biddeford, a former mill town that like most former mill towns has experienced its share of economic adversity. The street encompassed modest stand-alone ranch houses and two- and three-floor apartment houses in varying states of repair. In one ground-floor apartment, the woman answering the door was watching out a window as two small children played in a snow bank; she did not speak English, but her husband did, reporting as he multitasked on his cell phone that he was married and supported gay marriage. At one rooming house, an extended family of itinerant carnival workers had just moved in; they too were supporters not only of gay marriage but of marriage, period. Two young men were unemployed, but both were happily married. "It's been great," said one, whose wife of a year was helping him lug a heavy cabinet up some outside stairs in the freezing February cold. In one renovated bungalow, a stay-at-home mom also said she was in favor.

"Personally, I think it's a business union," ventured one man who answered the door of a two-story condo; it was his suspicion that many gay people wanted to marry mainly for health insurance, but if they did, it didn't really bother him; after all, straight people could do the same. Another woman was more hung up on the benefits issue. "I have quite a few nephews that are gay and they're wonderful people," she said. "I have nothing against them, but this whole marriage thing to me is going to end up with complications. They want benefits to go along with it, and I wonder if it's going to be costly down the road. I don't know what more they want."

A woman in her 70s sat on a glassed-in front porch of a second-floor apartment, flanked by a row of collared shirts she had ironed for her husband, who was inside, watching TV. "Marriage has been very good to me," she said: this, despite the fact that (as near as I could make out from a fond and rather meandering narrative) her first husband had suffered from a mental illness, her second and third husbands had died, she'd almost lost this one to a heart ailment, and throughout it all, she was grateful to be part of the institution. She had worked running a bed and breakfast, so the point of marriage to her was not economic support; it was companionship. She had a lesbian daughter and was inclined to support her right to marry. Down the street, a nurse answered to say her own daughter had left her heterosexual marriage to live with another woman.

It was striking, on that street alone, how many people had gay members of their family and were willing to say this to a stranger. It was also striking how many of them respected and valued the institution of marriage overall.

Some people respected it so much that they did not consider themselves yet worthy. "I need to save up a little money," said a tall, polite man who answered the door in his stocking feet; he supported gay marriage and wanted to marry his girlfriend, but felt too broke to ask her.

"Right now, I'm just working on my student loans," said another. Asked if he felt financial stability was a pre-requisite for marriage, he said, "Absolutely."

Perhaps most affected were the canvassers themselves: men and women who joined the effort, sometimes as paid staffers, usually as volunteers. Many were straight. Some were married, but many were not. Some were feminists who felt skeptical about marriage as a historically unequal union but found themselves growing more sympathetic, more appreciative of marriage and its virtues. Some were armchair Marxists who went through a similar philosophical evolution. Some were just young activists who wanted to get involved in a fun communal project and had not given a lot of thought to the topic at hand. "I don't really care about marriage," one guy had whispered as he was being trained to phone bank. Some skateboarded to their assignments; some shared cigarettes with the voters they were canvassing. But as a result of all the talking, their own thinking changed to the point where one canvasser confessed to a household of voters that he was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Later, when the tape of that interaction was played during a training session, he sheepishly confirmed it was true.

"I think that we have had a profound impact. We changed a significant portion of our voter base on this issue," said Maria, a thoughtful, soft-spoken thirtysomething who was one of the star canvassers of the campaign. "We were talking about really personal, private details about marriage and relationships, and family, about religion and faith. Every area of a person's life is impacted by marriage--if they are married. And if they are not married, there's impact there, too."

During her months of canvassing, and supervising other canvassers, Maria got very, very good at talking to strangers about marriage. First she tried talking to them about their own marriages, but as she went along she refined this, also talking to people about their parents' marriages or friends' marriages or really any marriage they had experienced. Because everyone has experienced marriage--or even its absence--in some way. She talked to people who had been in toxic and abusive marriages, and to people whose marriages had been the mainstays and central comfort of their lives. She talked on the phone with a woman dying in hospice. The woman wanted to tell her how she and her family always opened one present on Christmas Eve, in honor of the fact that it was the date she and her husband had married. She talked to men who described their love for their wives in a way, she suspected, they rarely confessed to the women in question. Sometimes people would stand at the door in the Maine summer, talking about the qualities they loved in their wife, or their husband."You would see the spouse peeking and laughing at the stories they were sharing. People were saying these beautiful heartfelt things that maybe they didn't say to each other."

And as result of daily conversations like that one, Maria broke up with her long-term boyfriend. The collective impact of all that inquiry and examination persuaded her that her own relationship did not have what it took to work. She is not sure what the crucial elements are. "I figure I'll know it when I see it," said Maria. So perhaps one consequence of the national conversation has been to reinforce a respect for marriage, and long-term committed unions, to the point where people are moved to re-evaluate their own relationships and come to any number of conclusions. Earlier this month, when Maria and I emailed again, she reported: "My team is still seeing some fallout in both campaign breakups and engagements/commitments. Of course some of that is just life, but it's true that thinking about this issue so much changes how we think about our own relationships. One of my canvassers emailed me today and said that she just graduated college and is moving in with her fiancé. She had always felt like marriage equality should happen, but that marriage just wasn't something she would ever do. She met her fiancé while she was working on the campaign and they got engaged last August."

Maria's next message, which arrived yesterday, reported that that canvasser is now married.