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Sunday, August 9th, 2009
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When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

by M V Badgett

Same Sex, Different Continent

A review by Sal Renshaw

Amid the intense controversy still surrounding same-sex marriage in the U.S., M.V. Lee Badgett speaks in a refreshingly tempered voice. Drawing on European precedents, particularly in the Netherlands and Denmark, her research tells us what many of us already knew: The skies don't fall when gay couples attain the right to marry, and heterosexual marriage doesn't lose its luster. Since the first wave of the marriage equality movement in Europe, which began in 1989 with the Danish acceptance of civil unions and saw the Dutch allow same-sex couples to marry in 2001, there has been no appreciable difference in wedding rates among heterosexuals. Badgett discovered that same-sex couples define marriage the same way as do heterosexuals, and they marry for similar reasons: public affirmation and recognition of their commitment, economic security and considerations about children. Given the choice between marriage and registered partnership, they choose the former. Using European examples as a template, Badgett offers a way of thinking more rationally about samesex equality in the U.S.

If rationality and truth were what the debate here is actually about, there might be more hope for her work's impact -- which is not to be taken as a criticism of the book itself. It's a fine piece of social-science research, painstakingly detailed and compelling in its findings. But the debate in the U.S., thus far, has proven remarkably resistant to the cool voice of reason. Americans' opposition to same-sex marriage is founded on religious ideology and faith, as was also the case with the Europeans. The vital difference, however, lies in the much closer ties between religion and politics in the U.S.

Last year's successful Proposition 8 campaign in California, which saw the state's constitution rewritten to exclude same-sex marriage just 12 months after it had been affirmed as a constitutional right, was a massive display of public propaganda funded by religious conservatives. And despite the U.S. Constitution's ostensible separation of church and state, the theocratic Bush years gave rise to an unprecedented slate of supposedly secular social policy initiatives that were little more than Trojan horses for right-wing Christian values. Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and research director of UCLA's Williams Institute, which studies gay legal issues, found that countries that have granted marriage equality or registered partnerships have in common high cohabitation rates, low religiosity and high socialservice expenditures. A similar pattern can be seen in the U.S.: States that have granted rights of partnership or marriage are socially progressive and, more importantly, tend to vote Democratic. Perhaps the trend toward legalizing same-sex unions indicates a resurgence of commitment to the separation of religion and politics, something much of the Republican Party has shamelessly abandoned. Badgett offers a reassuring portrait of marriage equality in Europe, but in the bitter, religiously fueled struggle over the definition of marriage in the U.S., she may be preaching to the converted.

Sal Renshaw, Ph.D. is chair of the department of gender equality and social justice at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. She is author of The Subject of Love: Helene Cixous and the Feminine Divine (Manchester University Press, 2009).


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