The Sky Isn't Falling: It Turns Out Gay Marriage Has Not Destroyed the Institution for Heteros

A new book shreds the conservative talking points.

The following is an excerpt from When Gay People Get Married by M. V. Lee Badgett. Copyright 2009 by New York University. Reprinted with permission fromNYU Press.

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The Impact of Gay Marriage on Heterosexuals

Dutch winters are notorious for being gloomy, with low gray clouds pressing down from the sky. But January 1, 1998, was a happy winter day for same-sex couples in the Netherlands, who could finally register their partnerships and receive almost all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. A little more than three years later, the Dutch parliament had opened up full-fledged marriage to same-sex couples. Did the low Dutch skies drop a bit in response to giving gay couples access to a marriage?

Letting gay and lesbian people marry someone of the same sex obviously changes the gender combinations in married couples by opening up the rules about who may marry whom. I have shown that same-sex couples approach the existing institution of marriage carefully as they consider whether to marry, displaying respect for the institution’s social power and for its potential personal influence. What would happen to the institution of marriage if same-sex couples were allowed to marry everywhere? Some have argued that one good reason to slow down or stop the movement toward marriage equality is the possibility that this change will have a long-lasting negative influence on different-sex couples’ decisions about marrying or on the institution of marriage. In other words, some people fear changes in what marriage means in a larger cultural sense. In particular, they worry that opening up marriage poses a threat to children by diminishing heterosexual couples’ desire to marry, thereby reducing parents’ commitment and attention to childrearing.

One of the most influential writers promoting this view in the United States is the conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz, whose argument is rooted in the assumption that the primary purpose of marriage is to have children. He points to the drop-off in marriage rates over time, the rise in heterosexual cohabitation without marriage, and the rapid increase in nonmarital births in Scandinavian countries and in the Netherlands, the countries that first allowed same-sex couples to register as partners, to bolster his claim that marriage and parenthood have become further separated in the minds of heterosexual people as a result of gay marriage. He concludes that “gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of the increasing separation between marriage and parenthood” because it accelerates the separation process that had already begun as a result of other causes. His conclusion about the long-term consequence of giving marriage rights to same-sex couples is potentially devastating: “Marriage itself has almost entirely disappeared”; “Marriage has become a minority phenomenon”; “We are witnessing no less than the end of marriage itself in Scandinavia.” Kurtz warns that this trend is disastrous for children because of higher rates of break-up among cohabitors and worse outcomes for children raised by unmarried parents.

In many ways, Stanley Kurtz defined what came to be conventional wisdom among conservative opponents of marriage rights for gay couples. Kurtz is an avid reader of demographic research and has assembled a detailed argument based on demographic statistics and on his reading of cultural trends in Scandinavia and in the Netherlands. Over the past few years, I have jousted with Kurtz online and in print on whether the demographic trends truly line up with policy changes, as have other writers and scholars. His perspective is an important one to consider, although I argue that his conclusions are terribly wrong.

Others have piled onto the Kurtz bandwagon, attesting to his influence. The Senate debate on the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 showcased charts displayed by several senators that illustrated variations on themes developed by Kurtz. Researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that demographic data show that “same-sex marriage has not strengthened the family but may have accelerated its decline.” In 2004, a group of Dutch scholars who study law and other fields rather distantly related to family studies issued a “statement” that made an argument strikingly similar to that of Kurtz:

In light of the intense debate elsewhere about the pros and cons of legalizing same-sex marriage it must be observed that there is as yet no definitive scientific evidence to suggest that the long campaign for the legalization of same-sex marriage contributed to these harmful trends. However, there are good reasons to believe that the decline in Dutch marriage may be connected to the successful public campaign for the opening of marriage to same-sex couples.

The Dutch demographers and other social scientists I have spoken with do not agree with this view and tell me that this is a decidedly minority opinion among Dutch scholars. Nevertheless, this statement seems to add to the weight of opinion behind Kurtz’s point.

With such a clear-cut assumption about the crucial connection between marriage and procreation—marriage should come first, then children— Kurtz and others can easily point to evidence that ideas about marriage have changed by identifying visible or important people who express a view that marriage is about love, commitment, or anything else—that is, anything other than procreation. They argue that the smoking gun in the same-sex marriage debate is a sharp change in the public understanding of marriage that emerged during the debate about rights for gay couples. The public debate in those countries, they argue, provided a highly visible launching pad for ideas about marriage from politicians, academics, clergy, and the media and that these ideas landed in the minds, homes, social institutions, and decisions of heterosexual people. If those potential opinion shapers described marriage as an institution rooted in anything other than procreation, then Kurtz accuses them of contributing to the demise of marriage.

One response from historians and other social scientists is to note that the view of marriage promoted by Kurtz and company is a narrow and incomplete one. The historian Stephanie Coontz shows that marriage has served many other purposes for modern and past cultures beyond simple procreation. She argues that marriage was mainly a way to link families into larger social units. Legal marriage formalized property arrangements that cemented these links. Not until recently did marriage become more about love than about property and in-laws. In the twentieth century, as people have lived longer and spent less of their coupled lives raising children and as economic forces have made both spouses’ paid labor increasingly essential, family life and family law have also adapted.

Another possible response is to point to recent demographic research showing that same-sex couples themselves are more involved with procreation than some would expect. In the United States, about one-third of lesbian couples are raising children, and almost one in five gay male couples is raising children. At least 9% of Dutch couples are raising children, while one in six Danish registered partner couples have children. Although we do not know how many of those children were born into the same-sex relationship, clearly same-sex couples are involved in the reproduction of new human beings at some stage of the childrearing process. We have seen that some Dutch same-sex couples married because they were planning to have children, and Eskridge and Spedale report a similar connection for some Danish same-sex couples who registered as partners. Later, I explore in more detail the possibility that same-sex couples have unorthodox ideas about marriage that might lead to a larger cultural shift, but here I just note that this conservative view of marriage expressed by Kurtz et al. assumes that heterosexual people are the only ones who have the capacity to reproduce, when in fact statistics show otherwise, given the variety of ways children can be conceived or raised.

However, the most direct way to respond to the challenge of those who see the “experiment” with same-sex marriage in Europe as a disaster is to look more closely at the evidence on what heterosexuals do with respect to marrying and having children. What has happened to the marriage decisions of heterosexual couples in European countries when they share marriage or marriage-like rights with same-sex couples? Since we see the current meaning of the institution of marriage in both marriage behavior and ideas about marriage, I look at both what people think and what they do about marriage. I use the same data that Kurtz uses (along with some additional sources) but apply some simple but powerful standards to assess Kurtz’s argument:

1. Do the trends in family behavior (marriage, divorce, cohabitation and non-marital births) line up with the timing of policies allowing partnership or marriage for gay couples?

2. Do the countries with partnership recognition look different from those without partnership rights for same-sex couples?

3. Is there a logical connection between the policy debate and heterosexual behavior and attitudes toward marriage?

All evidence points to a response of “no” to each question. As a result, my conclusions about the trends and their connection to the issue of marriage rights for gay couples are quite different: what heterosexuals do and think suggests that marriage is still a relevant institution in the lives of most heterosexuals, even though it looks quite different from marriage several decades ago and even though gay couples get similar or identical marriage rights.

The Missing Logical Link

One problem with the sky-is-falling argument concerns the actual mechanism that links marriage rights for same-sex couples to changes in heterosexual behavior. The five Dutch scholars who criticized gay marriage, along with Kurtz, propose that the political debate itself was the main culprit that led to the redefinition of marriage in the minds of the larger population. The debates about same-sex couples have been widely covered in the news media wherever the issue has been considered seriously. In this view, gay organizations and their political and cultural allies who favor opening marriage to same-sex couples contribute to widening the already noticeable gap between marriage and procreation created by increasing access to contraception, individualization, and economic freedom for women.

These critics overexplain cultural change, however. First of all, we have no way of knowing the actual—not hypothetical—impact of a wide variety of conflicting statements about marriage that get broadcast throughout the news media and other cultural institutions. Did Dutch twenty-somethings hear their members of parliament proclaim that marriage is about love (not procreation) and then decide to have babies without marrying? Did young Norwegians have a second child before marrying because favorable media treatment of gay couples meant that marriage and procreation are not linked? Aside from the many issues around the timing of changes that I’ve already explored, it’s clear that different influences send conflicting messages about the seriousness and purpose of marriage.

In the United States context, imagine a time when same-sex couples have the right to marry. Someone is bound to point to some apparent change in marriage-related behavior in the United States that seemed to start around 2003 and to blame it on the debate about same-sex marriage that surrounded events in Massachusetts and San Francisco. They’ll mention gay characters on TV shows. They’ll quote Congressman Barney Frank and other prominent politicians speaking on C-SPAN about the need to give same-sex couples equal marriage rights. They’ll find some academics who predict that giving gay couples marriage rights will not have a harmful effect on heterosexual marriages, and they’re sure to find a few gay radicals who would like to abolish marriage altogether.

What they probably won’t mention are Britney Spears’s momentary marriage or television shows like The Bachelor or Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire—all cultural events that are likely to be far more influential than what a relative handful of same-sex couples might or might not represent. Picking out a few cultural influences in any country that allegedly “explain” a subtle demographic change that started years earlier while ignoring the rest of what went on at that time is not a convincing causal argument, especially when there is no clear behavioral evidence that something big changed.

Oddly enough, focusing on the cultural debate suggests that the political outcome itself would not even matter. Even when gay couples lose votes or court decisions, as Dutch gay marriage advocates did in the early 1990s, people like Kurtz argue that gays still exert the same cultural pressure as long as they have some prominent allies, a visible media campaign, and some minor public victories. If the debates are all that matter, though, then the cat is out of the bag in the United States as well, and those of us involved in the debate about the impact of gay marriage can all go home.

William Eskridge and Darren Spedale point out another big logical flaw in efforts to link gay marriage rights to heterosexual behavior. They argue that same-sex partnership policies are far weaker signals of the separation of marriage and procreation than are childless different-sex marriages, especially since the earliest laws in the Scandinavian countries actually clearly distinguished partnerships from marriage and procreation by not allowing partners to adopt children. The actual factors behind the decline in marriage, the two legal scholars argue, relate to an expansion of choices for couples that developed through the liberalization of laws related to divorce, sexuality, cohabitation, and contraception. All of those changes had expanded heterosexual couples’ options and changed their choices long before countries opened eligibility to marriage or a marriage-like status to gay couples. The idea that conservatives could shore up marriage by maintaining a restriction on eligibility—keeping same-sex couples out—rather than by reversing the legal liberalization of marriage and related laws strikes Eskridge and Spedale (and myself) as completely illogical.

Click here to buy a copy ofWhen Gay People Get Married

M. V. Lee Badgett is the research director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.