In Las Vegas last Saturday night, I watched a happy bride wander through the gaming floor of the Mirage hotel, hitching up her satin dress, followed by her husband and their two children. Down the street at the Little White Chapel, the drive-thru wedding window was doing brisk business. It's the place where Britney Spears (and I, for that matter) tied the knot in the middle of the night, only to regret it 24 hours later.
At the same time, a hotel in San Francisco was throwing a free party for the newly-weds who had taken advantage of the mayor's decision to authorise same-sex marriages. More than 2,000 people turned up to celebrate and a queue of another 1,500 stretched around the block. The front page of every American newspaper now leads with the issue that is dividing the nation - should gay men and women be allowed the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples?
Now President Bush has taken the extraordinary step of announcing that he will support an amendment to the Constitution that will state that marriage can only occur between members of the opposite sex. If passed, this would be only the second time an amendment has been introduced that curbs public freedom (the other was the Prohibition Act of 1920) since the Constitution was drafted in 1787. Suddenly the war in Iraq has been superseded with the war right on the President's front door. And it is not going to go away.
When Gavin Newsom, the Democrat mayor of San Francisco, made his historic decision to permit same-sex marriages on 12 February, there was no turning back. Since then, more than 3,300 have taken place, and the city is celebrating in more ways than one. Businesses, particularly restaurants, hotels and florists, are booming. A special website has been set up and flowers are being sent to same-sex newly-weds from supporters all over the country.
And other states and cities will follow; a court in Massachusetts has ruled in favour of same-sex marriages and licences will be issued throughout the state from May. So has a county in New Mexico.
The American Constitution is a mechanism to empower people, to expand and reinforce freedoms, not take them away. All the rights enshrined within it, such as the amendments to abolish slavery, to give women the vote, to integrate schools, have been won after long and divisive struggles. The President is supporting a proposed amendment that will declare that no state should accept another state's definition of marriage. At present those same-sex marriages in San Francisco could be legally binding elsewhere, a situation which strikes terror in the hearts of the Conservative Christian right.
Californian state law currently defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and this is what San Francisco has legally challenged. So President Bush, who is seeking to run for a second term on a ticket of national security and tax cuts, has been forced to confront one of the most socially divisive issues of his day, at a time when his popularity ratings have dipped.
Just as San Francisco set the agenda for the revolutionary sexual and social changes of the Sixties, which impacted right around the western world, so it is doing today.
At the centre of all this is the big question: "What is freedom?", and since those struggles led by the hippies in the Sixties, gay people in America have refused to be denied the equal rights that they argue they are legally entitled to. Marriage was, for them, a logical step, and to ban it is to be discriminated against.
Bush's latest plan has already been seen as blatant electioneering. Some gay rights campaigners regard his actions as an extension of what they consider a "war" against gay and lesbian families led by the right. With this risky gamble, Bush could lose up to a million gay Republican voters, but he could gain from Catholic and other church-going Democrats. He said on television on 15 February that states could choose to do what they wanted on the issue of same-sex marriages. Now he has decided to risk the wrath of gays within his own party and take a huge political gamble, hoping to set his Democratic opponents against each other. Some conservatives even want same-sex civil unions banned too.
Most Americans oppose same-sex marriages, but those who support them argue that no social change has ever been approved by the majority. And if you consider how long it took the country to grant equal status to African Americans, you can see that they may have a point.
To many Americans marriage between a man and a woman, and the children of that legal union, form the foundation of their society. But this is the same society which gives us the Drive-Thru Wedding Window, the "quickie divorce" and the crippling and cynical pre-nuptual agreements. It is the same country that elected a President who insisted that he was happily married and had never had "sex relations" with Monica Lewinsky.
In short, America is hypocritical. It is the country of lap-dancing and Mormons, tele-Evangelism and child beauty pageants, with Michael Jackson promoting himself as a model dad and Hollywood stars adopting children to provide an instant family.
Frankly, you could say that the whole concept of marriage is so debased in Western society that if the gays want to resurrect it, and to create a new working model for the 21st century, good luck to them.
Personally, I have been married four times, and so am a hopeless role model for anyone. I am living proof that heterosexuals are no better at marriage than gays and certainly don't deserve a monopoly on the institution.
The mayor of San Francisco is to be applauded for firing the first shot in what is undoubtedly going to be the next social revolution. What can the President really do about the thousands of men and women who now consider themselves married to a member of their own sex? You can't turn the clock back. Gay men and women on both sides of the Atlantic can already adopt children, own property together and can legalise their partnerships.
To some people, same-sex relationships will still seen as a fundamental threat to the stability of a society. But are heterosexual marriages really providing the foundation on which our modern society is built? Tell that to the single mothers who are unable to cope with the pressure and financial burden of parenting after being abandoned by their husbands. There are now increasing numbers of children in this country who do not have stable home lives or loving parents. So do heterosexuals really know best?
At present our government proposes to give legal recognition to same-sex couples, offering them equal rights in legally-registered partnerships. This means entitlements on inheritance tax, pensions and property.
The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has set up a register to formally recognise same-sex relationships, but this does not have the legal status of a marriage ceremony. I would like to think that he now has the courage to follow his counterpart in San Francisco and give gay people the rights that are undoubtedly theirs.
Would our society really be any poorer as a result?Reuse content