"It may be compared to a cage, the birds without try desperately to get in, and those within try desperately to get out."

-- Michel de Montaigne

Can you oppose same-sex marriage without being a homophobic troglodyte? Well, of course, but the important question is: Why shouldn't we expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples?

One reason is that heterosexual marriage is unique: It invites procreation, and that is dangerous. A woman could die, and even if birthing goes well, child-rearing is an enormous economic liability. Marriage links sexual access to societal obligation. It protects women and children by establishing a stable and binding framework upon which to build a family.

There is no question that family structures have been remarkably fluid across time and across cultures. The Mormon church sanctioned polygyny until the late 19th century. Ancient Egyptians practiced royal incest to assure purity of bloodlines. The American Anthropological Association says that "a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies."

Uh-huh, but you don't build a family on "same-sex partnerships" without a running start. It's the procreation thing, and that's what requires sex diversity. It is also what differentiates marriage from same-sex partnership.

Keep in mind that the "vast array of family types" across the millennia includes our own: a man, a woman and their progeny. With all its problems, that structure has been more effective than any other structure in the procreation and nurture of our next generation. Marriage and family are simply too important to abandon or redefine merely to demonstrate a trendy sensitivity toward the homosexual lifestyle.

It wasn't that long ago that the single-parent family -- a structure encouraged by both feminist credo ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle") and federal subsidies to unwed mothers -- entered the mainstream. There was some pessimism.

In 1965, future U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that only about 75 percent of black American children lived in a two-parent home, and he worried for the social consequences. Today, a scant 25 percent of black American children live in a two-parent home. Among whites, it is 75 percent. That is the same percentage that in 1965 caused Moynihan so much concern for black children, but perhaps his concern was ill-founded. Except for increased rates of illness, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, poverty, addiction, violence and incarceration, the devastating social consequences Moynihan feared never materialized.

Nearly 40 years later, contemporary ideology again drives us to reconsider and redefine marriage and family. Today, Heather can have two mommies and daddy can have a roommate, and why not? Might not two men love and nurture a child as well as its biological parents? Are not some gay and lesbian couples already successfully raising one partner's biological children? Are these not families?

With divorce and dysfunction already commonplace, it is hard to imagine that such alternative family structures could fail more profoundly. Maybe two-mom and two-dad families can work, but caution is indicated. Tinkering with family structure is risky business.

There are also humanitarian issues. Why, for example, shouldn't same-sex couples be granted the dignities, privileges and advantages granted married couples? For some benefits, there is no good reason. Same-sex couples should be permitted to jointly own property. Homosexual partners should be present at the other's deathbed and without some doctor demanding a public "outing." All persons should be able to bequeath possessions to the persons or institutions of their choice. None of these requires a change in marriage law.

For other marriage benefits, there is reason to be restrictive. Keep in mind that advantage cannot exist without disadvantage. If married people benefit, single people are encumbered. Social Security retirement benefits demonstrate this nicely. At retirement age, each eligible person can take a Social Security pension. Married people can, with some restrictions and limitations, assign their pension to a spouse who outlives them. Singles, of course, can't do this. Thus, single people support a benefit for which they themselves are ineligible.

Singles accept this encumbrance willingly as quid pro quo -- legitimate recompense for procuring and nurturing our next generation -- a risky and expensive mission that can easily preempt gainful employment for one of the spouses. It is compensation, not entitlement. Single people have no reason to so compensate couples that cannot procreate.

The principal questions regarding same-sex marriage do have answers. Where's the harm? There is no harm as long as the new, alternative forms of marriage and family work, but there is reason for caution. Why should same-sex couples be denied some marital benefits? Easy: Singles have no reason to accept the requisite burden.

There are still loose ends to the matter. What about marriage benefits for non-procreative heterosexual couples: 70-year-old newlyweds or young couples using the pill? Such couples clearly offer no procreative quid pro quo, and maybe it is time to rethink Social Security and other benefits for such couples. Maybe it is also time to debate the institutions of marriage and family.

In the meantime, let's not be too quick to extend tax-derived benefits to same-sex couples. There is no public quid pro quo here. Sensitivity is one thing, but profligacy is quite another.

Homosexual commitment -- like conventional marriage for the most part -- must be its own reward.

-- JAMES A. METCALF

Can you deny the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples without being a homophobic cave dweller? Well, of course, but it's important to know first how that opposition affects gay people.

First and foremost, to gay people, same-sex marriage is about protecting our families. It provides such things as visitation rights in hospitals, inheritance rights upon the death of one partner, guardianship rights and responsibilities with respect to children, immigration rights in the case of partners of different nationalities, employee health benefits, pension and Social Security rights and so on.

These rights exist to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the financial and personal lives of people in a committed relationship, to provide for the children supported by that relationship and to strengthen the families that are the foundation of our society. For gay people, our families and our relationships are not "alternative arrangements" or "experiments"; they are our families, and legally defending and strengthening them just makes sense.

Without same-sex marriages or civil unions, gay couples and parents have to find a lawyer and cobble together a set of contracts and arrangements that duplicate some of the benefits of marriage, which are available to different-sex couples through a simple (and inexpensive) ceremony. Some of those benefits (such as Social Security survivor benefits and immigration rights) cannot be arranged without marriage.

Although most large private companies provide health benefits to domestic partners of their employees, Virginia prohibits private companies in the commonwealth from doing so. The General Assembly recently passed a bill (the so-called Affirmation of Marriage Act) that states that a "partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited." In other words, all of those ad-hoc legal arrangements that lesbian and gay couples have used in the past to ensure visitation rights, joint title to property, etc., are now prohibited in Virginia. These two prohibitions together make Virginia the most regressive state in the nation with respect to same-sex couples. Fiftieth out of 50.

So to gay and lesbian couples, same-sex marriage is important to protecting and strengthening our families. Civil unions, if they were recognized nationally, would do the same thing.

But same-sex marriage means something else to gay people: It means being fully accepted in society; that is, being citizens equal to heterosexual people under the law. It seems as though Virginia has pulled up the welcome mat and hung up a big sign that reads, "Gays need not apply." For gay people, who really want to be equal citizens in the state and country where we make our homes, passage of same-sex marriage would mean acceptance as full and equal citizens.

The truth is, at least for some, gays and lesbians aren't welcome. Some people would just rather we all left. There's a lot of talk about whether gays and lesbians are "real people": Is it inherited, is it learned, is it a choice, a mental illness, can it be changed? That kind of attitude is not unfamiliar to anyone who is gay. We have seen it all our lives.

Most gay people are involved to some degree in a wide and varied gay community, with sports leagues, civic organizations, churches, temples and synagogues of which the rest of society is largely unaware. Among our friends we congregate with people who know that we are real people, with real families. But in the rest of the world, all of our lives, we have met with stereotypes and prejudice. Every day we encounter people who do not welcome us, and I suspect we always will. But if same-sex marriages were recognized, we would feel, at least, that our government acknowledged us as equal people.

I myself am confident that laws and attitudes will change. Our society has progressively become more tolerant of the differences among people. It was not that long ago that Virginia, by state law, closed any public school that allowed black and white children to learn together. Now even suggesting in public that we resegregate schools is unthinkable.

The acceptance of people of color in what had been an exclusively white-run society took decades (and is not nearly complete), and acceptance of same-sex marriage, along with wider acceptance of lesbian and gay (not to mention transgender) citizens will take time as well.

But polls indicate that younger people are much more accepting and supportive than previous generations. The comment I hear most often from my students, when they learn of the debate over same-sex marriage, is "You mean gay people can't get married?" They're surprised that adults are even debating this.

The real benefits in same-sex relationships are what they are in all relationships: companionship, support, respect, stability and love. At least for now, that's what we have. But the benefits that come with civil marriage would help. And the sense of being a fully accepted citizen in our state and country would be terrific.

-- ROBERT RIGBY JR.

Since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage last month, the issue has prompted wide debate. Here are two local views, one from James A. Metcalf, a George Mason University health sciences professor, and another from Robert Rigby Jr., an openly gay teacher in Fairfax County and a local activist. Metcalf labeled his column "Straight Talk About Gay Marriage," while Rigby submitted his as "Gay Talk About Gay Marriage."

On May 17, Massachusetts became the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriages. Joanne Colucci, left, and Marilyn Lober walk to Town Hall in Provincetown to file for a license. METCALFRIGBY