On the news this evening, reporters were saying that Massachusetts had “legalized gay marriage.” I know I’m splitting hairs here, but I think there is a subtle distinction to be made between recognizing gay marriages before the law and legalizing them. To “legalize” something usually implies that it was illegal before. But it was not against the law for gay people to make solemn vows to each other, to exchange rings, to have binding ceremonies, even to have religious weddings if they could find churches willing to perform them. What distinguished straight marriages from gay ones (and what still distinguishes them outside of Massachusetts) was that the former were legally recognized and granted certain privileges by the state, while the latter were largely ignored by the state. Gay marriages were analogous to private agreements that the courts declined to enforce. But declining to enforce an agreement is not the same as outlawing it.
Why belabor this point? Because if my reasoning is correct, then use of the word “legalize” in this context helps perpetuate the myth that the institution of marriage is and must be a creature of the state. Intimate relationships do not require the approval of the state to exist. Gay marriages exist right now, in every state in the union, and the only question is whether the people in them will receive equal treatment before the law.