The New Gay Marriage Tradition

"Tradition" is a lousy reason for keeping people down.

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Supporters Brian Sprague, left, and Charlie Ferrusi hold a Human Rights flag outside U.S. Supreme Court building on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
"The repeal of DOMA means I don't have to be torn apart from the only family I have left," one gay marriage supporter said.

When I was living in Eastern Europe in the latter part of the 1990s, one of the most maddening things was being a consumer dealing with businesspeople in a place still adjusting to a market economy. We'd go to a shop at ten minutes to 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning – in the rain – to purchase an item in a store window. The owner would be inside, theatrically looking at his watch, waiting until it was exactly 10 o'clock to let us in.

Then we'd find out he had no intention of selling to us – or anyone – what was displayed for sale in the window. How could he, he explained. Then he wouldn't have anything to put in the window.

Change is always somewhat tumultuous, even when the change is for the better. At its mildest, the adjustment involves, say, my elderly neighbors in Budapest figuring out that it really wasn't necessary anymore to monitor the movements of myself and everyone else in the apartment building, as there were no more communist security services to whom they could report (though basic busybodiness knows no political or economic system). At its most extreme, people get gunned down and trampled during a popular revolution. But what interferes most with the final transition is the group which keeps stamping its metaphorical feet against change with the lamest argument of all: "tradition."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

This is the euphemism used to insist that two people of the same gender should not be able to get married. It's also the expression used to keep women out of exclusive clubs or to convince them and the world that their proper place is home tending to housekeeping and children while men run the governments and economies.

If two people of the same gender prefer not to marry, or if a woman prefers to stay home and tend to the household, power to them. But the use of the word "traditional" to describe those choices is just another way of saying it's acceptable to discriminate or to force people into limited roles simply because we've always done it that way.

In fact, that was a common explanation when I questioned Eastern Europeans about why certain things were done certain ways. Why, when I bought something at a local department store, did I have to stand in one line, select an item, get a piece of paper from the clerk, then stand in another line, pay for the item, get the paper stamped, then go back and stand – again – in the first line to collect my purchase? "We've always done it that way."

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The same explanation was given for a wide variety of behavior. And I'm not talking about the genuinely charming and wonderful traditions. I'm talking about a last, desperate effort to hang onto some sort of power by telling a group of people they have to live a certain way because it's "tradition."

Gay marriage, women in the workforce, women in military combat – they are all big social changes, and it's understandable that some people will have a hard time making the adjustment. But denying the reality of how the world is changing is not going to stop things from changing. That, traditionally, has been the case.

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