I had an uncle whose second or third wife nobody in my family liked. I don't really know why, and I didn't have an opinion of my own. Yet no one uttered a contrary word in their presence. We may have been poor folk on the South Side of Chicago, but we had a Victorian sense of decorum. It was generally understood both that my family disapproved and that my uncle and aunt's marriage was nobody's business but their own.
When I was 10, around the same time I was coming to understand my family's attitude toward my uncle's marriage, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to prohibit blacks and whites from marrying. Now, that seems like another world ago. Interracial marriages are common today. Loving v. Virginia marked a seismic cultural shift. Yet what applied to my uncle's marriage made sense here, too. Some things are private matters, nobody else's business.
So when the Massachusetts high court declared same-sex marriage legal nearly a decade ago, it didn't seem like an unfamiliar idea. All our Supreme Judicial Court did was affirm the ancient principle that people come before their government as equals. Governments rarely get right the most personal, intimate decisions in people's lives, in my view, and should stay out of them. (My friends tell me I come to liberalism by that conservative path.) One could approve or disapprove of whom another chooses to marry, but government does not get to deny consenting adults a marriage license on the basis of social disapproval.
Nine years ago Friday, same-sex marriages started happening in Massachusetts, and the time since then has proved wonderfully unremarkable. The sky has not fallen. The earth has not opened to swallow us up. Thousands of good people, contributing members of our society, have made free decisions about whom to marry. Most have been joyful and lasting. Some have failed. Ho-hum. And even as this principle of government treating people equally spreads to 11 more states and the District of Columbia, even as mean-spirited politicians stoke discord over marriage equality in election years, people just keep on being people, choosing their life partners by the same old mysteries, regardless of sexual orientation. Gays and lesbians, like blacks and whites a generation ago, want nothing more than to be ordinary.
As our nation's highest court considers two cases addressing same-sex marriage — one challenging the ban on equal marriage in California and the second challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — I hope the justices consider the Massachusetts experience. If our constitutional democracy doesn't mean that people come before their government as equals, then democracy itself is up for grabs. And the impact of affirming that principle, by striking down the California ban and DOMA, is to let a large part of our population keep their personal decisions private.
Our court's 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Healthwas clear-eyed about that. The majority opinion, written by then-Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, remains an urgent call to justice. It also offers a timeless and eloquent description of marriage that transcends sexual orientation.
"Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family,' Marshall wrote. "Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.'
When the "self-definition' people seek is to be ordinary, government ought to step back and let them be.