When Gay People Get Married
California Lawyer

When Gay People Get Married

What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

September 2009

by M. V. Lee Badgett
New York University Press,
304 pages, $35, hardcover

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One of my favorite "go-to" scholars for guidance has been Professor Lee Badgett, who divides her time between an economics post at the University of Massachusetts and a research position at the stellar Williams Institute, the gay legal think tank at UCLA. Now, thanks to her new book, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, everyone has access to her latest insights on the social, political, and legal implications of same-sex marriage.

Badgett approaches her topic with the same clarity and thoroughness she brought to her economic study of the gay community, this time by traveling to the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage is well integrated into that nation's social fabric. Living in Amsterdam for a year, the author interviewed numerous same-sex couples and weaves her observations into an analysis of the demographics of the emerging social landscape, discerning how the legalization of same-sex relationships (initially through domestic partnership and then marriage) affects lesbian and gay couples, as well as the larger Dutch society. She compiles data on how social change works, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and uses this data to analyze how a tolerance of cohabitation and low levels of fundamentalist religiosity operate in the social dynamics of the United States, when it comes to the legalization of same-sex marriage. These are not merely "academic" insights: Her gleanings are enlightening for any family lawyer with lesbian or gay clients?and for anyone who cares about the broader issues raised by legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Badgett's narratives reveal how the interwoven factors of emotional, practical, and community pressures led some couples toward and others away from the legalized altar. Their stories reveal how being "outside of the law" has shaped so many lives, resulting in a view of marriage markedly different from that held by straight couples. Like so many same-sex couples in California, Badgett's interviewees are torn between the lure of social acceptance, with its accompanying practical benefits, and a concern that getting hitched legally will draw them into a conventionality at odds with their culture and community. She also describes how the marriage debate has unfolded within the gay community, which provides lawyers with a valuable background for understanding their clients' political and personal journeys.

Three core lessons emerge from Badgett's research. Lesbian and gay couples approach the marriage decision differently than straight couples do, focusing as much on a quest for social legitimacy as on commitment to their relationship. Second, the extension of marriage into the gay community is far more likely to change gay culture than it is to change traditional marriage. And third, legalizing marriage for same-sex couples arises in a particular social context, marked by high levels of heterosexual cohabitation, low levels of fundamentalist religiosity, and preexisting high tolerance for legalizing homosexual activity.

Family law attorneys will appreciate Badgett's inquiry into how opening up traditional marriage to previously excluded communities might change the very nature of marriage?even though in the end she predicts "no major changes" to the institution, given the small percentage of same-sex couples. One intriguing exception is the shifting of gender roles, in ways that lie at the heart of new demands for both spousal and child support.

Badgett believes that "analyzing how marriage matters for individuals ... and for couples' relationships will help us understand how a gay community that was created and shaped by legal inequality will adjust in an era of legal equality that was almost unimaginable even a decade ago."

By traveling with her to a city where equality emerged so early, we can better comprehend how the new legal options of domestic partnership and gay marriage will resonate with lesbians and gay men and shape families of all varieties.


Frederick Hertz is an author and mediator based in Oakland. His latest book, Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions, was published in August by Nolo Press.

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