Where's the wedding?

Commentary: OutRight

by Dale Carpenter
Published on May 11, 2006, 12:00am | Comments

The Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, which opposes gay marriage, has just issued a new report finding that relatively few gay couples are getting married in jurisdictions where gay marriage is permitted. Is this correct? If it is, why are there so few gay marriages so far?

Here's a summary of the findings from the report:

''The highest estimate to date of the proportion of gays and lesbians who have married in any jurisdiction where it is available is 16.7% (Massachusetts). More typically, our survey of marriage statistics from various countries that legally recognize same-sex unions suggests that today between 1% and 5% of gays and lesbians have entered into a same-sex marriage.''

The report derives these numbers by comparing the total number of same-sex marriages in a jurisdiction to an estimate of the total number of adult homosexuals in the jurisdiction (based on survey data). While we could quibble over the estimates of the number of gays in a given jurisdiction, the report uses a range of reasonable assumptions.

Which way do these preliminary findings cut? On the one hand, the report gives some ammunition to opponents of gay marriage, who may argue that marriage will have little practical impact among gays. The legal benefits of marriage will remain unavailable to the many gays who don't marry.

On the other hand, even assuming that marriage rates among gays remain low, there will still be legal, social, and other practical benefits to those gay couples who do choose to marry. To them, marriage will be important regardless of whether others choose to marry.

Low marriage rates among gays make it even harder to see how this tiny fraction of the population will cause any practical harm to marriage as an institution (such as by the flaunting of non-monogamous behavior by some gay-male couples). Of course, if you believe that a "change in the definition of marriage" to include same-sex couples is itself harmful to marriage then marriage will be worse off even if no gay couple actually gets married -- but you don't need studies to make this argument. To me, this definitional fear has always seemed far too abstract to count for much.

Assuming it's true that relatively few gay couples are getting married where it's allowed, why is that the case? Many reasons come to mind, especially the fact that even now a gay married couple in Massachusetts is not considered ''married'' by the federal government and 49 states. This complicates their legal status and precludes them from getting the full benefit of marriage.

Let me address four additional reasons for initially low gay-marriage rates. First, the idea of marriage is still novel to gay people. As the report suggests, such "novelty" can produce excitement. But it can also produce fear, specifically fear of the unknown. Britney Spears aside, I doubt many people get married for the novelty of it. Marriage is a huge legal and social commitment. People who have never even imagined it would be a prospect in their lives are understandably hesitant.

Second, gay couples have no gay married role models to follow. Relatedly, there is as yet no peer or familial expectation that one will get married, as there is for straight persons.

Third, without the social encouragement and support that marriage provides for relationship formation, there are probably relatively fewer long-term and stable gay couples to begin with, and thus relatively fewer couples who would immediately demand marriages. As new relationships are formed under a regime of marriage, more gay couples will eventually reach the point where someone pops the question, ''Will you marry me?''

Fourth, reinforcing the fear of the unknown is the fact that many gay people have actually constructed an oppositional identity for themselves partly based on their exclusion from marriage. Excluded from marriage, they have made a virtue of this necessity.

This oppositional identity takes many forms in the writings of queer theorists and in the things even ordinary gay people can be heard to say when the subject of marriage arises. One hears expressions like: "We don't need marriage with all its patriarchal and heterosexist trappings." Or: "I don't want to mimic straight people." Or: "Marriage is such a mess, with 50% divorce rates, why would we want to join it?" Or: "Just give us the benefits of marriage and you can keep the word."

Some people will retain this oppositional identity no matter how much time passes. But for others, primarily those younger people whose identities are formed in an environment where marriage is an option, oppositional identity of this sort should fade.

All of this suggests there will be an adjustment period of some duration while more marriage-inclined gay couples form and while marriage becomes a comfortable and normatively appealing option to them.

I doubt that marriage rates among gays will ever equal marriage rates among heterosexuals, primarily because gay couples will be less likely to raise children. Even after marriage culture settles in, straight couples will be most likely to get married, followed by lesbian couples (who are more likely to raise children than gay males), followed by gay-male couples. But a disparity in marriage rates among heterosexual and homosexual couples is not an argument in itself against recognizing same-sex marriages.

Whatever our views of gay marriage, we should not be surprised to find gay couples and communities taking things slowly.

Dale Carpenter is a law professor. He can be reached at outright@metroweekly.com.


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