I'm for anything that terrifies Democrats, outrages Republicans and upsets the apple cart. But exultation about the gay marriages cemented in San Francisco, counties in Oregon and New Mexico and some cities in New York is entirely misplaced.

        Why rejoice when the state extends its grip? Assimilation is not liberation. Peter Tatchell, the British gay leader, put it even more strongly a couple of years ago: "Equality is a good start, but it is not sufficient. Equality for queers inevitably means equal rights on straight terms, since they are the ones who dominate and determine the existing legal framework. We conform -- albeit equally -- with their screwed up system. That is not liberation. It is capitulation."

        So the good news, as my favorite paper, UltraViolet (newsletter of LAGAI -- Queer Insurrection) recently put it, is not that 400 gay couples are now legally married in San Francisco but that 69,201 in the city (UltraViolet's number) are still living in sin.

        Civil union, today lawful only in Vermont, makes sense to me. Unmarried couples, straight or gay, need to be able to secure joint property, make safe wills, be able to have hassle-free hospital visits and so forth. But the issue of hospital visits or health care should have nothing to do with marriage, and marriage as a rite should have nothing to do with legal rights.

        Civil union in every state of the union would level a playing field that has become increasingly uneven across the past generation. In some corporations, gay couples have health benefits that unmarried straight couples don't. Contrary to endless ranting about the "marriage penalty" in the federal tax code, a larger number of people enjoy a marriage bonus, as the House Ways and Means Committee determined in 1999.

        Unmarried workers may lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year in employee benefits compensation. For example, as the Unmarried America Web site points out, "Most states will allow workers to collect unemployment compensation if they quit a job to move to a new area when their spouse is relocated by his or her company. But state laws usually will not give these benefits to a worker who quits to relocate with his or her domestic partner."

        There are so many tricky questions, particularly now that morals and the surgeon's knife have deepened their own relationship. What happens when a transgendered person who is already receiving domestic partner benefits at work for his male partner goes through sex reassignment surgery and obtains genitalia of the opposite sex? Should the couple lose their benefits until they get legally hitched?

        None of this should have anything to do with the rites of marriage, whether it be a Christian covenant mandating a three-year waiting period before divorce or a hippie New Age union cemented waist deep in a river with solemn invocation of the winds and other natural forces.

        "The pursuit of marriage in the name of equality," says Bill Dobbs, radical gay organizer, "shows how the gay imagination is shriveling." Judith Butler, professor at U.C. Berkeley, exhibited kindred disquiet in a quote she gave the New York Times last week. "It's very hard to speak freely right now, but many gay people are uncomfortable with all this, because they feel their sense of an alternative movement is dying. Sexual politics was supposed to be about finding alternatives to marriage."

        As Jim Eigo, a writer and activist whose thinking was very influential in the early days of ACT UP put it a while back, what's the use of being queer if you can't be different? "Why are current mainstream gay organizations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others? Under its terms, gays who are willing to mimic heterosexual relations and enter into a legally enforced lifetime sexual bond with one other person will be granted special benefits and status to be withheld from those who refuse such domestication ... Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. At this juncture in history, wouldn't it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?"

        And why marriage to just one person? Why this endless replication of the Noah's Ark principle?

        For me the cheering political lesson is that Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco felt the hot breath of a challenge from his left (in the form of his Green opponent Matt Gonzalez) and felt impelled to radical action to consolidate his victory. That's good, because it shows the value of independent radical challenges, but that's where my cheering stops. Gay marriage is a step back in the march toward freedom. Civil unions for all!

        Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.