When I was growing up, marriage was a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman in which it was understood -- legally and emotionally -- that the man would provide financial support and that the woman would run the household. The jobs of husband and wife were as clearly defined as the kind of jobs that women didn't have: policeman, bishop, soldier. The husband was the provider. The wife was the nurturing caretaker. Women didn't like sex, and men didn't cook.
In this kind of marriage, youthful high spirits grew into decades of companionship and mutual concern. President Bush and Laura Bush seem to have this kind of old-fashioned, emotionally nourishing marriage. Good for them.
For many of us, the idea of that type of marriage is about as realistic as the Cinderella story. We are out here in the real world where pumpkins don't turn into coaches, where the divorce rate is close to 50 percent, and where it often takes two incomes to provide a reasonably comfortable life. Lots of women make more money than their husbands. Many of us live in blended families that include stepchildren and half-brothers and half-sisters. Out here, the best marriages are improvisations that mix the old values with our new circumstances.
The night before the recent Senate vote, a dear friend took me to see The Boy From Oz, a Broadway musical about the gay singer-songwriter Peter Allen. As Allen, the actor Hugh Jackman is electrifying. Watching his seductive display, I thought about my late father, a bisexual man in a time when homosexuality was illegal and shameful.
He died in 1982 at age 70, but he lived much of his life in what feels like another world. In that world, if someone was gay it meant that they were exceedingly happy, a happiness often fueled by "tee many martoonies." If they were bisexual, they could go to jail.
Like other bisexual men, my father lived in a private prison of guilt. He was afraid to appear feminine in any way. Our family was secretly shaken by the arrest of a friend who had been "caught" by the FBI and charged with being a "practicing homosexual."
For a gay man or woman, the price of having a family or keeping a job was absolute silence.
Two decades after my father's death, we are living in an age of sexual possibility. Angels in America came to television this year to join Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, an hour in which the gay Fab Five transform dowdy straight men into chic, sensitive, gourmet-meal-cooking hunks.
Gay culture has broken away from the old guilt and the grief of the AIDS plague in an ecstatic soft shoe. It's wonderful, and it's dizzying. Doesn't it seem like yesterday that "coming out of the closet" was a difficult maneuver? These days the closet is likely to be on the cover of Architectural Digest.
I'm all for civil rights. Who isn't? I think most people are against discrimination. We lean toward fairness. We want to live in a peaceful world; we want justice for all. There are hundreds of federal rights and benefits denied to couples who happen to be the same sex. That's not fair. Same-sex couples live in long-term relationships; they buy houses and raise children. They go to PTA meetings and pay their taxes. Why should their tax dollars buy them less than the tax dollars of couples who happen to be heterosexual?
The way we define marriage already has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. When it comes to gender and sexuality, there also have been enormous shifts in what we find acceptable or fair. It's hard to believe that homosexuality was ever illegal.
The Army has changed. The church has changed. The laws have changed. Our government has changed. Change is thrilling; change is hard. The time has come for yet another redefinition of marriage. Whatever it is, let's make it fair.
Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.