Gay marriage: Social revolution, evolution or largely insignificant?

Jane Edwards, University of South Australia

M.V. Lee Badgett When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?, New York and London, New York University Press, 2009 (286 pp). ISBN 9-78081479-114-1 (hard cover) RRP $75.95.

There is an old joke:

Q: What do lesbians bring on a second date?
A: A suitcase.
Q: What do gay men bring on a second date?
A: What is a second date?

The joke expresses a ‘truth’ universally acknowledged: non-heterosexual women have had committed relationships without the state’s imprimatur and gay men’s only pledge has been, apparently, to sexual license. This fabled understanding is being shaken by the advent, or prospect, of same-sex marriage. Lesbians have abandoned reviling the state as a patriarchal instrument and now claim its mandate, while gay men are seeking to trade their putative hedonism for home and hearth. Gay marriage has been one of the more interesting and incendiary issues in contemporary western culture and non-heterosexuals have been given—in select jurisdictions—the right to wed (albeit fleetingly in some US states). What is to be made of this? Why are non-heterosexuals claiming the right to marry? Will their gain weaken heterosexual marriage and unravel the social fabric as religious conservatives fear? What consequences will marriage have for gays and lesbians themselves?

Lee Badgett asks and offers some answers to these questions in her carefully argued work, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage? Badgett is part of the trend she describes, having married her partner, Elizabeth, after a history of activism on behalf of same-sex unions in her native North America. However, the book is based on interview data with same-sex couples in the Netherlands, where ‘gay marriage’ has been recognised since 2001. It also assembles an impressive array of secondary data on same-sex marriage and its social impact (or lack thereof) in the Netherlands and other European nations that have recognised such unions.


Non-heterosexuals are impelled to matrimony by the same force that moves heterosexuals: they love someone. However, many of Badgett’s interviewees had been in long-standing relationships before deciding to marry their partner, so what tips the balance in favour of marriage? As is the case for many heterosexuals, love of partner is a necessary but not a sufficient catalyst for matrimony. For both heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, marriage is a public declaration of love and commitment. Deciding to have children and making economic commitments (principally buying a house) also figure in the journey of heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals to the altar (pp. 25–33).

In addition to these personal and practical impulses, non-heterosexual activism about marriage represents a culmination of earlier political concerns, while simultaneously marking a shift in emphasis from the objectives of earlier incarnations of the gay rights movement. The political impetus toward gay marriage is in part motivated by a concern with dismantling discrimination. Lesbians and gay men struggle to have parental rights concerning children who are not their biological offspring recognised and have been denied economic benefits such as health insurance and access to partner’s superannuation (pp. 30–44). Access to marriage can therefore be considered as just another gain in a long fight against discrimination.

The gay rights movement that began in the late 60s was infused by an emancipatory politics.

Yet the current campaign for marriage by same-sex activists also represents a change of emphasis from earlier activism. As Weeks and colleagues (2001, pp. 1–15) and Richardson (2000, pp. 256–257) observe, the gay rights movement that began in the late 60s and early 70s was infused by an emancipatory politics. Marriage was viewed as a bulwark of the patriarchal order that oppressed non-heterosexual women and men alike, and lesbians and gay men sought to topple marriage, not take residence within its walls. This emphasis on social transformation has morphed into a project of assimilation; the emphasis is on citizenship and on making social institutions more inclusive rather than overthrowing them. Of course, the very fact of advocating for, or allowing, for equality for non-heterosexuals is itself both a measure of and further impetus toward social transformation. This is particularly so for opponents of non-heterosexual marriage who regard the prospect as a monumental and unfortunate expression of social change. Nevertheless, the push for marriage by gay men and lesbians themselves does represent a change of emphasis from the political concerns and goals of earlier gay rights activists.

Attempts to redress non-heterosexual couples’ disadvantage through the recognition of civil unions are now regarded by many activists as insufficient. Equality, not simply the absence of discrimination, is demanded. As Badgett demonstrates, given the choice between civil unions (or other forms of legal recognition) and marriage, heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals overwhelmingly choose marriage. Between 1998 and 2007, 1,040 same-sex couples per year registered their relationships in the Netherlands. However, since marriage has been available to them (2001–2007), same-sex couples have been signing up at a rate of 1,528 per year (p. 60). Civil unions, she found, are regarded as a kind of ‘marriage-lite’. One of Badgett’s interviewees refers to them as ‘not quite the real thing’ (p. 57). Such unions create a two-tiered system: heterosexuals get the distinction of marriage, while non-heterosexuals get civil unions as a consolation prize. This leaves many lesbians and gay men feeling that their second-class status is underscored. The marital half-way house represented by civil unions still proclaims that non-heterosexual relationships are not worthy of the respect given to those of heterosexuals. Hence an end to discrimination and the ‘mere’ economic and legal disadvantage it entails is not a compelling enough reason for non-heterosexuals to marry. Badgett identifies the ‘paradox of practicality’; too heavy a focus on the practical benefits of marriage is felt by some couples to undercut the more rarefied, romantic impulse to marry (p. 28). The married gay men and lesbians she interviewed chose to marry because they were in love. Badgett’s respondents opt for marriage because it has currency in the economy of relationships. It is a unit of relationship which is understood by both heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals and it confers equal value on them both. In the words of one interviewee, ‘[I] don’t want to get registered—it sounds like the result of an accountant’s report: “I got registered”’(p. 57).


The claim for marriage rights by gay men and lesbians cannot be understood apart from wider changes to the institution of matrimony. Anthony Giddens (1992) points to a ‘democratisation’ of social relationships. They are now negotiated (and re-negotiated) rather than being defined by roles ordained by custom and obligation. Men and women, whether in heterosexual or non-heterosexual alliances, can, says Giddens, define the contours of their relationships. Cherlin (2004) refers to de-institutionalised marriage, where ‘personal choice’ and ‘self-development’, rather than ‘roles, rights and responsibilities’ are the words that define the expectation, if not the experience, of matrimony. The ties between couples are less constrained than previously by laws, regulations or societal expectations. This is ‘do-it-yourself’ marriage. Contemporary matrimony does not indissolubly lock people into a rigid institution, with unimpeachable gender divisions, guarded by an unassailable picket fence. That matrimonial template would have held little attraction for many gay men and lesbians and has become increasingly unpalatable to many heterosexuals. If what marriage is can be more malleable, it is not surprising that there is greater flexibility about who may be married. The lesbians and gay men interviewed by Badgett articulate this new sensibility by defining marriage as a choice, not an obligation (p. 19).

The married gay men and lesbians Badgett interviewed chose to marry because they were in love.

It may seem paradoxical that non-heterosexuals, having battled to have the right to marry, now say they will only do it if it suits them. This can be in part explained by ambivalence toward marriage by some gay men and lesbians (Badgett 2009, pp. 129–150; Pitts et al. 2006, pp. 26–27). This is matched by a similar kind of ambivalence among heterosexuals; the population of never married heterosexuals in Australia more than doubled in the decades between 1986 and 2006 (de Vaus & Richardson 2009, p. 11). It also points to the diversity within the lesbian and gay communities. Some value marriage, for a variety of reasons; some regard it as inherently heterosexual institution of which they want no part. Others are simply indifferent.

This diversity in the attitudes, and behaviours, toward marriage underscores what a voluntaristic enterprise this ‘new’ version of matrimony is. This ‘new marriage’ rests on and entrenches an individualist ethos and this helps explain why it has become a key battleground in the cultural wars. Some regard the contemporary changes to marriage, including the prospect of admitting non-heterosexuals to its fold, as a welcome extension to the project of citizenship and individual rights (Weeks, Heaphy & Donovan 2001). For others, however, this individualism is a dangerous, corrosive force; far from being welcomed, it should be wound back (Muehlenberg 2008). According to religious right-wingers, the individualism that allows people to decide what marriage means and whether they get or stay married is what is weakening marriage. It means marriage can be regarded as a ‘personal arrangement’ rather than a solemn covenant (Muehlenberg 2008).

However, individualism is not the culprit here. It masks a more fundamental difference in worldview and of consequent behaviour between two camps. This difference pivots, as Moats (2004) observes, on where these groups place the locus of moral authority. Religious conservatives locate moral authority in an external, objective domain (God or nature are usually invoked). By contrast, those of more secular and progressive persuasion consider that marriage is a conventional term that doesn’t have an immutable meaning. It is not unchanging institution whose own being underwrites its form and function and which we are enjoined to obey. Human beings have the moral authority to make of marriage what we will, regardless of gender or sexuality. For those of conservative sensibility, the meaning of marriage is derived from an external moral authority that has decreed it is a heterosexual institution. This authority not only proscribes non-heterosexual marriage, it also has the voluntaristic, DIY variety, so popular among heterosexuals, in its sights. Less emphasis on personal fulfilment and more on obeying the responsibilities and obligations entailed by matrimony would vivify the institution they say; it is not something we can, or should, fashion in our own image.


In the conservative mind-set, marriage is already an ailing institution; allowing non-heterosexual marriage will be the fatal blow. The list of dangers attributed to gay marriage by anxious conservatives is formidable. The health and well-being of women and men will be harmed. Sexual anarchy will be unleashed and men will abandon their wives and children. The absence of paternal influence will yield a generation of dysfunctional, disorderly children who wreak havoc. It will weaken heterosexuals’ attachment to marriage and intensify what is termed a ‘divorce culture’. In short, allowing gay marriage will fray the social fabric and imperil the nation according to religiously-inspired conservatives (see Edwards (2007) for a review of these arguments).

Unsurprisingly, Badgett’s carefully marshalled evidence does not offer support for this dystopian vision. One reason is that far from storming the citadel of marriage, non-heterosexuals are ignoring it: rates of marriage in the Netherlands and elsewhere remain relatively low. By 2005, only 12 per cent of same-sex couples in the Netherlands had married (p. 60). Badgett contends that the obstacles that have historically confronted same-sex couples explain this low uptake. Alternatively, it may mean that many gay men and lesbians are simply uninterested in marriage. Many lesbians and gay men affirm the right of non-heterosexuals to be married, while saying they have no wish to marry themselves (pp. 18–19). The Private Lives survey conducted in Australia indicated that non-heterosexuals greatly valued their relationships, but most could not see themselves marrying even if it were an option (Pitts et al. 2006). Anecdotally, I know of many gay men and lesbians who uphold the right of non-heterosexuals to marry, because it is a badge of equality and inclusion. While they hold this as a political principle, they have no intention of marrying themselves. For some gays and lesbians, by contrast, marriage is an inherently heterosexual institution and they want no part of it. Others, like increasing numbers of heterosexuals, decide that marriage is simply irrelevant; they are not so much opposed as indifferent. We should not expect a unitary view of matrimony among the non-heterosexual population, any more than we expect heterosexuals to hold to one perspective about marriage.

Human beings have the moral authority to make of marriage what we will.

Not only have the flood gates to widespread non-heterosexual marriage not been opened, there are few effects on heterosexuals. Despite conservative panic that allowing lesbians and gays to marry would see heterosexual marriage teeter further toward oblivion, it is has made no difference to rates of heterosexual marriage or divorce. There is no obvious difference in rates of heterosexual marriage in the first five European countries that recognised same-sex relationships: Denmark; Norway; Sweden; Iceland and the Netherlands (p. 68). Likewise, divorce rates do not suggest any impact of allowing same-sex unions (p. 70). The trend of increasing rates of births outside marriage (another panic point for the religious right) began long before legalised same-sex unions were authorised. In Denmark, the rate of births outside marriage had almost tripled before non-heterosexual relationships were given legal sanction. Similar patterns are evident in the Netherlands and Norway (p. 70). Conservatives could even take comfort that the belief among the general population that marriage is an outdated institution is less widely held in those European countries that recognise same-sex unions. Badgett concludes ‘the belief that marriage is outdated was becoming relatively less common in countries that recognised same-sex partners than in other European countries that did not’ (p. 84).


Same-sex marriage has barely made a dent on straight society, but has it, or is likely to, change gay men and lesbians themselves? Data on this topic are harder to come by. Badgett acknowledges that some lesbians and gay men have been fearful that ‘gay marriage’ will weaken the bonds of the non-heterosexual community. Some worry that allowing same-sex marriage will end gay culture. The opening of all social institutions to lesbians and gay men will erode the distinctive experience of non-heterosexuals and lead to a weakening of the cultural bonds that have joined gay men and lesbians in their response to oppression and exclusion (p. 131). Even assuming that such changes to the gay and lesbian communities could be discerned, how would it be possible to show they were caused by marriage? The change from the earlier politics of emancipation to the politics of inclusion is more likely to have an impact on the gay community than marriage. Badgett cites the health benefits attributed to marriage to suggest that it might well improve the well-being of non-heterosexuals (pp. 121–122). This represents one lapse in a book that is scrupulous in its evaluation of data and measured in its claims. The evidence for the health benefits of marriage is questionable and it tends to overlook the fact that they are highly gendered. Women generally have worse health status than men because of different patterns of education and labour force participation, poverty and caring responsibilities and marriage does little to offset this systemic disadvantage (Annandale & Hunt 2000). Moreover, as early as the publication of Durkheim’s classic study, Suicide, it was noted that men had a more positive experience of marriage than women (Durkheim [1897]; 1975). More recent research suggests that this differential experience of marriage still holds and that women’s lower satisfaction in heterosexual marriage contributes to them having poorer health than their male counterparts (Umberson & Williams 2005). It is not clear how gender differences might lead to particular health outcomes in non-heterosexual unions. However, the issue requires more attention than a glib assertion that marriage is good for the health status of participants.

That same-sex marriage has so little impact on the social order or on non-heterosexuals themselves is probably only surprising to fearful religious conservatives. Sensible reflection suggests that the action of a few gay men and lesbians is unlikely to imperil marriage. It is hardly arcane to observe that the fate of heterosexual marriage rests with heterosexuals themselves. Even if we recognise that the fate of (heterosexual) marriage rests much more squarely on the shoulders of heterosexuals, rather than on those of gays and lesbians, it seems only fair to acknowledge that heterosexuals themselves have limited culpability in the changing shape of marriage and its likely future forms. However much conservatives insist that marriage is divinely ordained, it is an institution profoundly moulded by secular events. The changing position of women, the nature of the labour market, child care provision, educational and welfare policy, the state of the economy and other structural factors will shape marriage. It is the worst fear of conservatives and a fond hope of non-heterosexuals that gay marriage might also help re-shape heterosexual marriage. Both groups are likely to be disappointed.

Same-sex marriage has barely made a dent on straight society.

The barely discernible impact of non-heterosexual unions in the countries examined by Badgett will probably only intensify the bewilderment of those who wonder why they provoke such alarm and animosity among religious conservatives of all persuasions. As risible as many of their arguments against gay marriage are, it is important that the bases of their objections are understood. This, for religious conservatives, is not a battle about human rights, citizenship or discrimination. It is about the basis of authority. The basis of individual behaviour and of social cannot be left to human authority, in their view. Many religious right wingers find the world a frightening place and consider it harbours multiple foes (gays and lesbians, feminists, ‘greenies’, the ‘intelligentsia’, ‘activist judges’: the list is long and mutable). For those with less conservative sensibilities, rational argument and sound evidence must remain the guiding principles in debates and activism concerning same-sex marriage. But we should understand that while the claims of conservatives about the impact of gay marriage seem barely plausible, for them the issue is a lightening-rod to a less visible, but more profound, battle that will not be over quickly.

However, the salient point is not whether gay marriage will change the wider form and social status of marriage. Marriage will inevitably change. The point of interest and importance is to identify the social, political and economic factors that impact on marriage, in both positive and negative ways, for both heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. Understanding what marriage means to gay men, lesbians and straight people and why couples some in all these groups continue to value marriage, while some find it irrelevant, is also worthy of further attention. For many non-heterosexuals, marriage is important as an emblem of acceptance, inclusion and equality. This meaning may be bound to a particular historical and cultural context that places a premium on assimilation and citizenship. This will change as culture and social conditions change. We can not expect the meaning of marriage for non-heterosexuals to remain static any more than we expect it to have a fixed, unalterable meaning for heterosexuals.


Annandale, E. & Hunt, K. 2000, ‘Gender inequalities in health: Research at the crossroads’, in Gender Inequalities in Health, eds E. Annandale & K. Hunt, Open University Press Buckingham, pp. 1–35.

Cherlin, A. 2004, ‘The deinstitutionalization of American marriage’, Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 848–861.

de Vaus, D. & Richardson, S. 2009, Living Alone in Australia: Trends in Sole Living and Characteristics of Those who Live Alone, Occasional Paper 2009: Census Series Number 4, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra [Online], Available: [2009, Dec 2].

Durkheim, E. 1975 (1897), Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. J. Spaulding & G. Simpson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Edwards, J. 2007, ‘Marriage is sacred: The religious right’s arguments against “gay marriage” in Australia’, Culture, Health and Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 3, pp 247–261.

Giddens, A. 1992, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Moats, D. 2004, ‘Fear itself: Reflections on gay marriage’, The Virginia Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 4, pp. 189–196.

Muehlenberg, W. 2008, ‘On breaking the marriage covenant’, Culture Watch [Online], Available: [2009, Dec 2].

Pitts, M., Smith, A., Mitchell, A. & Patel, S. 2006, Private Lives: A Report on the Health and Well-Being of GLBTI Australians, La Trobe University, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society [Online], Available: [2009, Dec 2].

Richardson, D. 2000, ‘Claiming citizenship? Sexuality, citizenship and lesbian/feminist theory’, Sexualities, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 255–272.

Umberson, D. & Williams, K. 2005, ‘Marital quality, health and aging: Gender equity?’ Journals of Gerontology, Series B, 60B, suppl. 2, pp. S109–A113.

Weeks, J., Heaphy, B. & Donovan, C. 2001, Same Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments, Routledge, London.

Jane Edwards is a sociologist with a long standing interest in the health and well-being of non-heterosexual women. Between 2004 and 2008 she was a member of the South Australian Ministerial Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Health. Jane has also investigated the response of the religious right in Australia to the prospect of gay marriage.