PUBLISHED LAST August, When Gay People Get Married arrived as debate about same-sex marriage in the United States had reached fever pitch. Arguments for and against come from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, and even inside the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement. In this debate, M. V. Lee Badgett’s book provides some factual grounding to arguments about what actually happens—to marriage, to same sex-couples, and to the broader society—when gay people do get married.
Badgett relies on personal interviews with nineteen middle-class same-sex couples in the Netherlands, as well as on detailed scientific and social data around the shifting views on marriage, particularly in countries that have same-sex marriage and partnership rights.
One of her conclusions is that same-sex marriage will not “lead the sky to fall on marriage.” Badgett argues, in part, that same-sex marriage will not destroy the institution of marriage because views on the institution have already been in the process of change. Many people now see marriage as an institution that has discriminated against LGBT people, and a rising percentage of people from around the world believe the right to marry should be afforded to all persons who are in committed relationships.
Family structures and marriage itself have changed since the 1970s as more women joined the workforce, gained reproductive rights and escaped the obligatory role as caretaker of the house (while the husband is the breadwinner). It is also now common knowledge all over the world that at least half of all marriages end in divorce—figures that undermine the idea that people marry “until death do us part.”
In fact, a growing number of people in the world, especially young adults, believe that marriage has become outdated. Interestingly, this view has not risen so quickly in those countries that have partnership laws that recognize same-sex couples. From a survey comparing the years 1990 and 1999, Badgett concludes:
In those six countries [with partnership laws] the proportion that believed marriage was outdated rose by 3.8 percentage points on average. The countries without partnerships saw a faster rise in the proportion of those who saw marriage as outdated, though.… This finding contradicts the prediction that recognizing same-sex couples will somehow undermine marriage in the minds of heterosexual people.
Citing a 2002 survey, Badgett notes how attitudes toward marriage and family have progressed in the United States:
While gay people’s opinions are somewhat less traditional than those of heterosexuals, the differences are fairly small, and the majority of gay and heterosexual people share broad agreement on family matters. Roughly half of people in each group agree that divorce is the “best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.” A large majority in each group agrees that it’s acceptable for an unmarried woman to have a child. Few people agree that young couples should not live together unless they are married. Almost everyone agrees that “the rewards of being a parent are worth it, despite the cost and the work it takes.”… Just about everyone agrees that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work,” although heterosexual men are less likely to agree.
But as these evolving views change the definition and relevance of marriage, same-sex partners in other countries continue to choose marriage even when domestic partnership laws exist. For many of the couples Badgett interviewed, registered partnership was not enough. Same-sex couples saw entering into marriage as a way for their relationships to be recognized as equal to different-sex relationships. Martha, who was interviewed by Badgett, points out, “One of the amazing things about marriage is people understand it, you know…. Two-year-olds understand it.… Everyone knows what it means.”
Badgett argues that same-sex couples choose to marry for the same reasons that different-sex partners choose to marry. They seek to have social recognition and acceptance of their commitment and love towards each other. They also see the benefits of being married when they are raising children, when they have bi-national partners, and when they own a house together.
In some of the countries Badgett discusses, including the Netherlands, people are guaranteed a social safety net that people in the United States do not have. Partnership laws and cohabitation contracts granted couples access to universal health care and other legal benefits years before there were same-sex marriage rights—which indicates that couples who get married now are not doing so for material benefits alone.
Couples saw other benefits to marrying that were at least as important—and often more important—than the practical value. Couples considered the emotional and expressive value of marriage to be its most important element, because they wanted to express their commitment.
When taking on the question of whether gay people will be changed by marriage, Badgett rightfully points out how access to marriage cannot be limited to the issue of having access to health insurance, which, of course, is a major concern for couples in the United States. She argues that access to the social right of marriage and acceptance of same-sex couples within this recognized institution will have a positive impact in combating discrimination and homophobia in society at large. This, is turn, can have an effect on LGBT people regardless of whether they’re in relationships. Suicide rates and depression are amongst the highest for LGBT people. Rather than worrying about whether or not same-sex couples will be changed by the institution of marriage or whether we will reinforce the institution of marriage, Badgett is right to point out that “Moving from a position of exclusion to one of inclusion is a change that is likely to have a positive psychological effect on some people.”
There are many important angles in the debate about same-sex marriage and the effects it will have on LGBT people and society as a whole. Badgett’s book is an important read for those of us who see same-sex marriage as a question of equal rights. My only question or challenge to the author would concern the decision not to include transgender couples in her analysis. I cannot say whether this comes from the (false) assumption that transgender couples somehow fall outside of the need to have same-sex marriage rights, or whether it’s because of the historical legacy of transgender people being sidelined in the LGBT movement for equal rights. In any case, this is a mistake that new movements, including the movement for same-sex marriage, shouldn’t repeat. Transgender couples face even more difficulties than cisgender same-sex couples in having their relationships recognized by the government, and they face all manner of other institutional discrimination, including when it comes to health care or even the simple act of having to use a public restroom in a society riddled with transphobia.
Despite this important criticism, I believe When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriageprovides a well-grounded contribution to the arguments needed to fight for full rights for LGBT people here in the United States and around the world.