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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 from NYU Press.

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: