In this great country of ours, known as The United States of America, there are two different types of marriages: one is sanctioned by religious organizations and the other is sanctioned by the government. These institutions are really two completely different things, but due to semantics, the two are very often confused; and, because of this ambiguity, there is much controversy over same-sex marriage.
The meaning of the word "marriage" has evolved over time. Once marriage was merely a contract in which a family basically sold their daughter to a man, through the exchange of a dowry paid to his family. Over time, in the medieval era, marriage came to signify romance between two people. During the ninth century, the church began blessing unions. In the 1500s, marriage served as a way to save men and women from being "sinful" and as a way to promote procreation. Religious institutions have since been joining heterosexual couples together by the sacrament of marriage.
The early European and American governments were once very intertwined in religious marriage but have since also drastically evolved this union into what is known as secular marriage, or civil marriage. The U.S. government currently sanctions marriage but not in its religious sense of the word. Here in lies the confusion. Our government has chosen to continue using the same word to refer to a similar union but with a different meaning and set of rules. The US government's role in marriage, today, brings with it a set of legal protections and responsibilities that US citizens have come to depend on.
These modern day legal protections include, but are not limited to, inheritance of property upon death, hospital visitation on one's death-bed, life or death medical decisions, funeral arrangements, filing joint taxes, health insurance, and adoption of spouses' children. Married couples also become legally responsible for each other; an example would be financial accountability for the spouse's financial decisions and actions. Other responsibility includes being able to make medical decisions for one's spouse during his/her incapacitation.
These are the things civil marriage brings to the table for any married couple, except for the same-sex couples denied the protection of marriage rights, by their very own government in 45 of the 50 United States. Even these legal same-sex marriages in five states do not entitle these couples to all of the benefits of civil marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, prohibits the Federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, thus prohibiting same-sex couples from filing joint federal income tax returns, as well as a host of other things.
As a straight person, can one imagine what it would be like if upon your spouse's death you were told by your in-laws that you'll have to sell your own home because the family wants their share? This is exactly what happens to gay couples, no matter how long they've been together or how in love or committed they've been. I've had people suggest that in the absence of marriage a gay couple could draw up private legal documents to enact one's own legal protection in these matters. But this is a very flawed compromise. You see these legal documents are challenged in courts of law every day and the gay partner, more times than not, will lose. Inevitably, the gay widow or widower will be forced out of his/her lifelong home, even after single-handedly paying the mortgage. This is a legal injustice.
The big concern for me is having my government protect me as a United States citizen. I am entitled to that as an American, as a gay American; but none-the-less, my interests are not protected. This is wrong. Someone else's personal religious beliefs should not infringe on my rights as an American, but they do. As an LGBT American I need my government to legally protect me just as it protects my straight neighbors. This is what I need from what my government refers to as "marriage".