Marriage equality in N.J. deserves attention

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New Jersey became the 14th state to recognize same-sex marriage on Oct. 21. Hundreds of couples, many of whom had been committed to each other for years, lined the streets outside of Newark’s city hall in the early hours of the day, eager to finally be granted equal benefits under both state and federal law. For these couples, certainly, it was a day of joy a long time coming.

Strangely, though, this latest victory has been met with comparatively little celebration by the larger community. Past legalizations have warranted parties and parades, not to mention a storm of coverage by the media. So why is the Garden State any different?

It cannot be said that New Jersey is an insignificant state, since its population is sizable — it is the third largest state to legalize same-sex marriage after New York and California. Also, the state has a strong conservative minority and even a popular Republican governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who is poised to lead the red ticket in 2016. Christie’s stubborn opposition to same-sex marriage, his attempts to appeal the state court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, and his eventual withdrawal of that appeal were packed with potential for news coverage. However, besides the predictable conservative dissent, this conflict has passed with minimal notice.

Even less recognized — and more important — is the fact that New Jersey is the first state to be pushed off the fence by the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) earlier this year. Since 2006, New Jersey has offered civil unions — rather than marriage — to same-sex couples. The explanation for this choice has been that under New Jersey state law, civil unions and heterosexual marriages were virtually identical; as such, no one could claim that New Jersey was denying equal benefits to same-sex couples.

However, DOMA’s repeal invalidated this excuse. Several government agencies began to extend federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, and consequently New Jersey marriages and civil unions were no longer equivalent. The court decision in New Jersey grew out of a promise to ensure all citizens equal protection by law.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey should have been a significant milestone, and not just because of the powerful influence that the repeal of DOMA had over it. New Jersey serves as an example that — beyond religion, politics, and prejudice — the battle for marriage equality should be defined by equal treatment under the law. Indeed, the war must be about equal treatment if we can ever hope to erode the iron chains guarding the same-sex marriage bans in some of America’s most stubbornly conservative states.

Then why is it that — even more than a week after New Jersey legalized same-sex marriage — equality within the state has received relatively little national attention?

The anomaly can be interpreted in two ways. First, the lack of sensation could be a sign that same-sex marriage is no longer a cause for sensation. Perhaps marriage equality is now becoming the new normal, and for the majority of Americans in support of it, New Jersey is just another state to check off on a domino chain that is bound to continue accelerating nationwide. There is undeniable optimism in this view. If Christie was able to somehow recognize that he was on the wrong side of history, might not other politicians start to realize the same?

It is the greatest hope of supporters everywhere that one day same-sex marriage — and LGBTQ equality in general — will be no cause for controversy. However, that day has not yet arrived.

A second, more realistic interpretation of the anomaly says that normality is dangerous if it leads to dormancy in the movement. This interpretation promises that it is more important now than ever to celebrate each victory at least as enthusiastically as the one before — keep a lookout for New Mexico and Hawaii in upcoming months. By moving forward without fail in an always growing wave of ardent support, we will eventually move opposition to the side of change.