Enough about Marriage, Let’s Talk About Me

When Gay People Get Married

What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

  • M. V. Lee Badgett
  • NYU Press, 2009; 285 pages, $35.00

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first nation in the world to legally and fully redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. The experience of the Dutch with same-sex marriage would, therefore, seem to offer a case study for examining the effects of this most novel of social experiments. This, at least, is the premise When Gay People Get Married by M. V. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and the research director of the Williams Institute, a “sexual orientation law and public policy” think tank at UCLA. The subtitle frames a very relevant question: “What happens when societies legalize same-sex marriage?”

Readers looking for answers to that thorny question will be disappointed, as Badgett weaves a relentless subjectivity into the entire narrative, from design to execution. Her research, based more on dinner-party discussion than empirical data, reflects this limitation. The economist seems to think that personal interviews with thirty-four homosexuals, representing nineteen couples, can provide a quantitative understanding of the social consequences of Netherlands’ experiment with same-sex marriage. The couples had been recruited through social and email networks of her Dutch friends and colleagues as well as from their friends and colleagues. Participation was solicited by an email message in which the author identified herself as “a lesbian (with a partner) who has been active in the U.S. lesbian community for 20 years.” So much for the rigors, usually followed by economists, of representative sampling.

Consequently, the book offers little generalizable information and no conclusions verified by data about the effects of same-sex marriage on matrimony and society in Holland. The work does not even attempt this. It focuses instead on the experiences, perceptions, and imaginations of nineteen homosexual couples, nine of whom are “married,” five of whom are “registered partnerships,” and the rest who are simply cohabitants. More than two-thirds of all the couples, and seven of the married couples, are female pairings. This is not to say that the book is not interesting. It recounts why some three-dozen Dutch homosexuals decided to wed or not wed; how seven female couples reconciled commitments to feminism with their decision to marry; how the married couples perceived the reaction of friends and family to their marital status; what changes the married couples felt their new status made in their lives; and how those who married felt marriage has benefitted them (or why those who haven’t think it won’t). Yet the reader is at a loss to understand the social relevance of all these personal stories.

Even the chapters that attempt to explore the broader social implications of the change in Netherland’s marriage law are marred with highly subjective elements. For instance, in her discussion of whether redefining marriage has affected the social norm of monogamy, Badgett explains:

The evidence from the Dutch couples I interviewed is somewhat mixed with respect to the norm. Marriage and monogamy seem fairly separate in the minds of most of the gay men. On the one hand, most of the married and unmarried male couples I spoke with were not monogamous and some distinguished their norms related to monogamy from those attached to traditional marriage. On the other hand, evidence of more traditional norms was also present.

She then claims, “My most important finding related to monogamy is that the men I interviewed did not seek to marry to overturn the cultural expectation of monogamy in marriage” (emphasis added). Again, the focus is on intentions and perceptions, not objective consequences.

Similarly, her discussion about the effects of same-sex marriage on “heterosexual people” is a curious formulation. Instead of exploring the effects of marriage on society—she reports polling data showing Dutch people don’t think same-sex marriage laws should be repealed and the feelings of participants who believe friends and families are more accepting of them because of the same-sex law.

The book does not entirely ignore the broader social implications, proclaiming that redefining marriage has not entirely destroyed the institution: “Marriage is not dead in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, so marriage or partnership rights for same-sex couples cannot have killed it.” To support this claim, the author cites a survey taken two years before the country redefined marriage (which found that only 25 percent of people in Holland believe marriage is an outdated institution) as the sole piece of data to measure “cultural change in what people think about marriage.” Indeed, the book contains ample evidence that marriage in the Netherlands is far from robust. Badgett notes, for instance: “Roughly a third of all 30 to 39-year-old Dutch people live with an unmarried partner, and almost half of them do not expect to marry their partners. Overall, demographers estimate that a third of Dutch people will never marry, although most of that third will live with a partner.” In commenting on the link between marriage and children, she notes, “Fewer than half of Dutch people in this age range [30 to 50] think that having children is very important [to a successful marriage], and a quarter think it is not important.” The picture is even more dire considering the country’s demographic implosion.

Badgett argues that same-sex marriage didn’t create this situation. That may be accurate, but it hardly seems irrelevant that a nation that has redefined marriage is experiencing something of a marriage meltdown, whatever the precise causal relationship between those two developments. Badgett’s point is that same-sex marriage hasn’t dramatically accelerated these trends: “The same rapid rise in nonmarital birth rates in the Netherlands (from 12% in 1990 to 29% in 2002) also occurred in other European countries . . . that do not (or did not until after 2000) allow same-sex couples to marry or register.” Her contention that same-sex marriage hasn’t made things worse certainly lowers the bar set by activists like Jonathan Rauch, who believes same-sex marriage will revitalize the flagging institution of marriage or tame promiscuous men.

Readers will recognize the naivety of the Rauch argument as they contemplate the fact that only an “estimated 25% of Dutch same-sex couples . . . have married or registered” and realize that same-sex marriage has not perceptibly revitalized marriage. If the tiny sample in the book is any indication, the “taming” or civilizing power of same-sex marriage is simply nonexistent. Perhaps because of these realities, Badgett concedes no transforming role for same-sex marriage and offers a far more modest assessment of the significance of redefining marriage: “Opening up marriage to same-sex couples is just the latest step toward renewing marriage’s continuing relevance in the twenty-first century.” To her, changing marriage law can be compared to redecorating a home: “Same-sex marriage is more of a cosmetic makeover of the old institution of marriage than a structural reconstruction.”

Her revealing analogy reinforces the subjective nature of the book. It also suggests the therapeutic agenda behind the push for gay marriage. Her newly “relevant” and “renovated” marriage institution of Holland is all about individual choice, adult fulfillment, and the reorientation from social goals to psychic and tangible benefits for individuals. Her words say it all: “reducing the social exclusion of gay men and lesbians;” making people “feel more accepted by society;” and “individuals who married reported feeling different, more responsible, or more special with regard to their relationships as a result of marriage.” Marriage in the Netherlands, it seems, has become nothing more than an increasingly idiosyncratic personal preference.

This thoroughgoing subjectivity may explain why the book does not address consequences to children or culture that could be expected to follow from a redefinition of marriage. For instance, it is axiomatic that a legal redefinition of marriage will be reflected in government education or propaganda efforts. As Badgett notes, the Netherlands forces immigrants to watch videos of same-sex marriage ceremonies and to take tests designed to make clear that the Dutch think same-sex marriage is normative. Here in America, Massachusetts has already seen disputes between parents and administrators about same-sex marriage curriculum in public schools. Such efforts to reeducate the public have consequences. A National Organization for Marriage (NOM) poll in Massachusetts found that 44 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “People who believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman are engaging in discrimination, just like those who opposed interracial marriage.” Only 50 percent agreed with the statement: “People should be free to practice their beliefs, even if it means they will not treat same-sex couples the same as other married couples.”

More troubling, redefining marriage also advances the idea that mothers and fathers are fungible. The NOM survey also found that “in the five years since gay marriage became a reality in Massachusetts, support for the idea that the ideal is a married mother and father dropped from 84 percent to 76 percent.” Badgett downplays these concerns because “among younger cohorts of Dutch people, same-sex couples and different-sex couples clearly share a sense of the relationship between marriage and procreation” (emphasis added). Yet the historical understanding of marriage did not merely suggest a relationship between wedlock and children but assumed an inextricable link.

Badgett does not seem convinced. She suggests that if marriage is about children’s interests, “why not simply encourage all married couples to have children and stay together, including gay couples?” Again, the question reflects a misunderstanding of marriage as a normative institution. The connection to procreation that the ideal of marriage promotes is not just that people marry when they have children, the timing of the two being irrelevant, as Badgett assumes. It means that a man and woman, whose union might produce children, commit to each other and their children before those children are even born. The marriage ideal also means that children should have, wherever possible, the opportunity to know and be raised by their own married mother and father.

Badgett dismisses this natural focus of wedlock and instead sides “with the historians in seeing change as necessary adaptability.” Most Americans, however, will suspect that more is at stake with the Dutch redefinition of marriage. With her subordination of social interests to subjective ones, Badgett’s “renovation” of marriage may really be a demolition.

Mr. Duncan is the executive director of the Marriage Law Foundation, a public-interest law firm in Lehi, Utah.