Same-sex marriage and the fabric of society: What does it all mean?

If you look at the fine print, last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t change much in practical terms. Domestic partnership, available to Californians since 2005, gave couples nearly all the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, outside of a few arcane legal details. And calling it marriage in California still does not trump the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which since 1996 has defined marriage as between a man and woman.

At the same time, no one denies that the ruling changes everything.

For some, it is a spiritual moment of human dignity finally resting upon everyone. For others, it is a sign that society is being sucked into an eddy of moral dissolution.

Many who are not directly affected are still processing and digesting the new reality, with the long-term implications up for grabs. As people begin to take the word “marriage” out of quotes when referring to same-gender couples, many questions come up. What do the ceremonies look like? What about divorce? Intermarriage? How will this affect the November ballot initiative to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage? And there are the larger philosophical questions of what marriage means and who makes the rules for a whole society.

What’s the Difference?

Although the actual legal differences are scant, attorney Jenny Pizer says the implications are more than symbolic.

“In practical terms, domestic partnership has resulted in confusion, and the status has not been respected the way it was intended,” said Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal and one of the members of a team representing couples in the Supreme Court case. “People are familiar with marriage, and having same-sex couples be in a different system has often caused people to err on the side of not respecting rights, which is not what we had hoped would happen.”

Using the same nomenclature can help others understand that gay and lesbian couples want the same thing as straight couples — the ability to express their love in a way society understands, under the protection of the law, providing a strong family structure.

The May 16 Supreme Court decision was sweeping in its language, saying that like all other rights, marriage couldn’t be limited to only a portion of the population. The broad decision put discrimination against gays and lesbians into the same legal category as race or gender discrimination.

That inclusiveness also made many gays and lesbians see this as a spiritual moment, whether or not they plan to marry.

“It been such a fight for civil rights over such a long period of time, that this is an affirmation of our humanity and our dignity,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami Synagogue in West Hollywood, a Reform congregation with a large gay and lesbian population. “Something that we have always talked about is the notion of b’tzelem Elohim, being created in the image of the Divine, and for the same notion to be echoed in a secular court, I think for many people has been uplifting and has been affirming of their humanity.”

Michael and Bob

It was not your typical wedding invitation — a Monday morning phone call inquiring if my husband and I would be available that afternoon when our friends Michael and Bob were hoping to marry at San Francisco’s City Hall. They decided to marry years ago, but instead of throwing an expensive party they bought a house together and put off the ceremony for some other time. Then suddenly, rebelliously, there were weddings being performed in San Francisco. A judge was considered likely to halt the ceremonies in a matter of days, and our friends decided they were ready.

We hurried home to shower and dress for a wedding. We scrambled for a babysitter, but then decided we wanted to bring our daughter along. Michael and Bob had celebrated so many milestones in her very young life, and since something sacred was going to happen to them, too, we wanted her to be a part of it.

As we raced into the city, worried we would miss the ceremony, I remembered how graciously Michael and Bob had waited with my husband and me in the hours before our wedding. They made friends with our friends. They remembered our siblings’ names, chatted with our parents. They kept us smiling and held our hands during countless rounds of photographs. And once it was over they hoisted us high in our chairs during the celebratory hora. The only openly gay couple in attendance, they bravely shared a slow dance together among the other members of the wedding party.

The scene outside City Hall was jubilant. A mariachi band was playing. There were dancers in top hats. Strangers handed each other wedding cake and offered to snap pictures for each new set of newlyweds as they emerged from the ornate building. A woman was throwing rice at newly married couples, and when she ran out of rice she bent down and picked individual grains off the sidewalk and threw them again. It was raining. All of the couples drew cheers of congratulations as they walked out of the building, but the prettiest lesbians got the loudest cheers. Some things are changing, but some things never change.

Inside City Hall, the mood was more serious. Michael and Bob had been standing in line for hours already by the time we reached them. Our friends were dressed beautifully in their best suits, and they were appropriately nervous. When we joined up with them — waiting in yet another line to receive their marriage license — Michael was talking on a cell phone with his mother in New York. His sister, who lives in San Francisco, was the only relative able to make it in time.

As I watched our friends pin pale purple orchids to each other’s lapels, sadness and outrage mingled with the happy excitement I had been feeling all afternoon. This was a bold, historic time in San Francisco and hundreds of city employees and volunteers were working themselves weary to make it happen. I was overjoyed that our friends — and the 819 other couples who wed that day — would finally have the opportunity to make official their private commitments to each other. There was reason for celebration, but we all knew they and their families deserved better.

Michael and Bob are lawyers, scholars and good, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes, love their families and mow their lawn. After Sept. 11, when San Francisco was swirling with apologists for terror, they hung an American flag in the window of their home. Michael is Jewish and Bob is not. Neither has a particular appetite for subterfuge.

It is a scary, generous act to bind your future to another’s — not the sort of thing one should have to engage in acts of civil disobedience to achieve.

On their wedding day, Michael and Bob deserved to be surrounded by their families and friends. They deserved time to plan the details exactly how they wanted them, to shop for rings and select meaningful cultural or religious rituals to include in their ceremony. They deserved the chance to pose for pictures over and over and over again until everyone was satisfied, and to be hoisted high up on their chairs in celebration when it was over.

Suddenly it was their turn to be married. We were hurried to the bustling, elegant rotunda of City Hall and a tired but enthusiastic woman who wore a green shirt and clutched a clipboard pronounced Michael and Bob “spouses for life.”

They had chosen the spot on the grand marble staircase where they uttered their vows. They had chosen each other. And in the dizzying, echoing chaos of San Francisco that Presidents’ Day, they had chosen to look beyond the shortcomings of their society and embrace one of its most sacred institutions. Our video camera was rolling.

Maybe it wasn’t all that they deserved, but at the same time it seemed like a lot.

Karen Alexander is a journalist in Northern California.

A Graceless Will?

Is Jewish the new gay? That’s how it’s looking this season on NBC’s "Will and Grace." Grace’s (Debra Messing) romance with hunky Jewish doctor Leo Markus (Harry Connick Jr.) has been a source of conflict between her and gay best friend, Will (Eric McCormack), ever since Leo rode in on a white horse in last year’s season finale. On the Nov. 21 episode, Grace and Leo got married, suggesting a threat to the very survival of Will and Grace’s friendship.

Mixed in with the usual bawdy jokes and witticisms has been an unusual amount of seriousness this season, as the two friends have struggled with the changing nature of their relationship. They ended last season thinking they were going to have a baby together, but Grace’s new romance changed everything, causing a bitter fight between them in one episode. The recent wedding episode (filmed in part at Temple Israel of Hollywood) was especially bittersweet. Amid jokes that included Will using kippot as shoulder pads, came heartfelt exchanges between the two, as Will worked through his resentment and tried to be happy for Grace.

Show co-creator and executive producer David Kohan conceded the marriage is a problem for the dynamic between the best friends. "I’d love her to find a Jewish love interest, but that relationship might actually work, and then there’d be no more ‘Will & Grace’" he told The Journal last year. Kohan has since changed his mind.

"They had to move forward in their lives in some way," he said, noting that the writers have had to deal with making the two "vital to one another."

While remaining unspecific, Kohan implies it’s unlikely the Jewish husband will displace the gay best friend. "Let me put it this way, at some point down the road, something is going to have to intervene," he said.

"Will & Grace" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.