A friend sent me a link today to a story about the progress of a bill allowing gay marriage in Maine. Generally, Democrats seem to be in favor of the bill, and Republicans seem to be against it. Passage by the legislature seems assured, but whether the governor will sign or veto the bill is unknown.
It is demoralizing that the debate on matters such as this is so often driven by people’s prejudices, fears, and hatred. The really significant issues are often ignored or suppressed by one side or the other. I am tired of hearing about equal rights for all from one side and about how gay marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage from the other. It’s about time that someone spoke out on the real issue in the gay marriage debate, and I intend to do so here.
Allowing persons of the same sex to wed surely does extend to gays a right hitherto restricted to straight folks.That must be counted as a plus when, for example, the Maine legislature considers whether to allow gay marriage. On the other hand, allowing gays to marry will provide a threat to everyone married now. This is a negative. (I have never completely understood this argument, but I suspect it is based on the idea that everyone wants gay sex, and making it possible to marry someone of the same sex will result in divorces to allow one or the other partner to try that alternative.)
These effects of instituting gay marriage, however, are all rather minor social consequences. The real impact of gay marriage is negative, and it most directly affects software developers and their employers.
As a database developer, I have built many databases that store personal information, including, quite often, information about people’s marital status. It is bad enough that, due to the women’s liberation movement, databases now need a field for the last name of a wife. Moreover, this field has to accommodate a particularly large number of characters because of the lamentable trend of wives taking on a hyphenated last name. When Jane Mandeville marries John MacFarland, she could become Jane Mandeville-MacFarland, which is a lot of data to store. Worse still is when the woman chooses to use both surnames, but, for lack of a hyphen, one cannot tell how to alphabetize the name. (Our example wife could be Jane Mandeville MacFarland. A real-world example is the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, which I think should be alphabetized under “J.”)
But this is nothing compared to the extra work and mental anguish that will be occasioned by the advent of gay marriage. Of course, databases can still use fields for “spouse,” but the spouse can no longer be assumed to be the opposite sex of the party dealt with in the record. Thus, another field for sex must be added. The situation is more complex than is readily apparent, however. The sex field used to indicate who was the husband and who was the wife. I have heard gay people talk about “my wife” or “my husband,” but I don’t know if this is common. Even if it is, how does one know which is which? In fact, can each partner consider the other the “husband” or each partner consider the other the “wife”? This is a real problem for software designers whose products deal with statistics about real people. It also presents problems in social situations that could take decades to work out. Surely, a new round of etiquette books will need to be written. Is our society ready for these disruptions yet?
Getting back to the software world, will there be other terms that database and other software developers will be expected to incorporate into their products? Marital status may become more complex, for example, and may require developers to include options such as “married-straight” and “married-gay.”
In short, gay marriage will create an enormous amount of work for software professionals, and I haven’t even considered changes to payroll programs and the like that may have to deal with additional benefits to married gays. The cost to the economy will be enormous, and the anxiety to which developers will be subject due to deadlines associated with programs that must be modified because of gay marriage will be a terrible price for society to pay. And we will all have anxieties about what to call the partner of the married gay person to whom we have just been introduced.
Yes, gay marriage will create all sorts of social disruptions. The most important reason for opposing the extension of marriage to same-sex couples, however, is its effect on one of our most important industries, the software industry. The burden on our software industry and on software developers personally will greatly outweigh the benefits of providing equal rights to all. In these days of a troubled economy, we surely cannot afford to burden a major American industry just to expand freedom.