It's debatable whether allowing gay people to wed will open the floodgates to recognition for other relationships. But certainly civil unions present a model that can be broadly applied. I'm not thinking of Rick Santorum's specter of incest and polygamy, but of the elderly who live together and don't want to sully the memory of their deceased spouses with another formal marriage. Civil unions might suit them, along with siblings who want to commemorate their bond (and join their assets). Down the road we may see groups of people sharing the custody of children, or geriatric communes seeking a legal tie. Each of these contingencies will involve its own process of agitation, and it will be up to society to accept or reject each claim. But the result could be a menu of possibilities, ranging from trial unions to so-called covenant marriages that are very difficult to leave. People may elect to pass from one category to another as their attitudes change. This begins to look like the kind of world radicals want to seea world of choice.
Gay marriage won't bring that about; nor will banning gay marriage prevent it. But the outcome of this struggle could determine whether America will adhere to a rigid code of intimacy, enforced by a system of penalties and stigma, or evolve toward the democratic vistas our poets have foreseen. "The greatest lessons of Nature," wrote Walt Whitman, are "the lessons of variety and freedom." America, he believed, was the ultimate repository of that principle. If we see gay marriage in that lightas an emblem of variety and freedom manifest in lovewe can understand why the right feels compelled to crush it. And we can see why the left must defend it, if only for its potential as a radical act.