The California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 8 in banning gay marriage is a setback not only for gay rights, but for the psychological and spiritual growth of our country. Gay marriage concerns far more than the 5-10% of our population that identifies as gay. America’s deepest tradition is the protection and expansion of individual rights and freedoms with a goal of liberty and justice for all.

Today, the movement to overturn millennia of discrimination against gay people represents the next major expansion of individual rights and freedoms. Even as a straight man, I see this not just through the lens of fairness but as an essential part of the evolution of America. While most commentators see Proposition 8 as a temporary setback in the context of an otherwise clear march towards equality, it does provide an appropriate moment to reflect upon why gay marriage is important not just for gay people but for all Americans.

At the core of the debate is the right of same-sex couples to marry and receive the full benefits and blessings accorded others under the law. Marriage is the most sacred contract sanctioned by our nation, consecrating the love between two beings and forging a legal partnership that also creates a stronger container for families. As such, it is a key place where spiritual values meet secular values. So long as gay marriage is outlawed, we are, as a country, creating a definition of sacred that excludes 5-10% of our citizens and the way they love. This message creates a profoundly split social order and has insidious effects on the psychology of straight people as well.

The suffering that comes from this form of apartheid is not as obvious as when we have separate drinking fountains for “white” and “colored.” And yet, the number of people directly affected is parallel to the 10% of the US population that was black in the 1950s and faced with “separate-but-equal” facilities.

The indirect effects of discrimination against gay people hurt everyone. For straight people, the lack of full sanction for gay relationships creates a more polarized social view of gender. Children are particularly sensitive to what is socially approved and what is not. Boys raised in a homophobic culture learn to overemphasize masculine qualities, fear feminine qualities, and create more macho personas, as well as to fear being “loving” with their male friends. Girls are similarly affected in a negative way. As both learn to be less authentic to their true nature in an effort to fit social ideals, they create long-term psychological challenges for themselves. The pain of inauthenticity flares up in substance abuse, violence, sexual dysfunction, isolation, and divorce. We all crave being loved for who we are. To the degree that we create an inauthentic facade, we never have the feeling of full loving acceptance.

Suicide rates have long been higher among homosexual teens and, by inference, we would expect that heterosexual teens with some same-sex attractions would also have lower self-esteem and higher suicide rates. A single suicide can have a devastating effect on dozens of other friends, families, and allies. I would know. One of my close friends from high school, who came out to me and a few others in college, was one of those suicide statistics and his sexual orientation certainly played a role in his eventual fate.

When we multiply negative self-esteem effects by millions, we realize how many social problems arise when homosexual feelings are defined as sinful or bad. The ban on same-sex marriage thus creates distortions in our children’s development that have profound affects on our national health and happiness. For example, since we have a primarily male power structure in America, a more macho social ideal for masculine behavior leads to an overemphasis on aggression, which creates more conflict and violence than may be necessary. The costs to our society of our psychological gender imbalance may be enormous.

The legalization of gay marriage will not, by itself, alleviate all our society’s imbalances. What it will do, though, is create a more expanded sense for what we hold as sacred and worthy of respect. That will trickle down, creating more permission for every child to be authentic to themselves and, in the end, forge a society with a healthier balance of masculine and feminine qualities, less conflict, and more overall happiness. This will not only have benefits for gay citizens but literally for all Americans.

For religious Christians who tend to be more strongly oriented to preserving the social order, legalizing same-sex marriage will ultimately allow an expansion of their heart. As it is now, Jesus admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is at odds with the ban on same-sex marriages. By creating social approval for same-sex marriage, we eventually make it easier for religious people to put their core teachings into practice and love gay people fully.

The movement for gay marriage is, at the deepest level, a movement for the psychological and spiritual growth of our country. By honoring same-sex marriage in the same way as heterosexual unions, we send the signal to the next generation of children that their natural inclinations are, well, natural. This in turn allows all Americans to grow up in a more authentic way. Men can be less hyper-masculine or defended and women can be more connected and loving as well.

The full legalization of gay marriage in America will represent a pivotal moment in evolving an ever-more-perfect union that is a beacon for liberty and justice for all. May that moment come quickly and gracefully.

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