Maggie Gallagher's Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, which opposes gay marriage, has just issued a new report finding that few gay couples are getting married in jurisdictions where gay marriage is permitted. Here's the summary of the findings from the report:
The highest estimate to date of the proportion of gays and lesbians who have married in any jurisdiction where it is available is 16.7% (Massachusetts). More typically, our survey of marriage statistics from various countries that legally recognize same-sex unions suggests that today between 1% and 5% of gays and lesbians have entered into a same-sex marriage. In the Netherlands, which has had same-sex marriage as a legal option for the longest period (over four years), between 2% and 6% of gays and lesbians have entered marriages.
The report derives these numbers by comparing the total number of same-sex marriages in a jurisdiction (based on government reports) to an estimate of the total number of adult homosexuals in the jurisdiction (based on survey data for the jurisdiction, if available, or a general estimate if not). The first number is precise; the second number is necessarily a rough estimate. I won't address here the accuracy of the data; I'll assume that the numbers for same-sex marriages are correct. While we could quibble over the estimates of gays in a given jurisdiction, the assumptions used seem fair. The report itself has a welcome "just the facts, ma'am" tone.
The report finds that there does not appear to have been a stampede of gay couples to the altar. It appropriately does not try to draw any grand conclusions from these findings, but the report will undoubtedly be used to make normative arguments in the debate over gay marriage.
Which way do these preliminary findings cut? On the one hand, the report gives some ammunition to opponents of gay marriage, who may argue that marriage will have little practical impact among gays. We should not "change the definition of marriage," they will argue, to benefit a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the population. The legal benefits of marriage will remain unavailable to gays who don't marry, and the overwhelming majority of gays aren't marrying where it's allowed.
On the other hand, even assuming that marriage rates among gays remain low, there will still be legal, social, and other practical benefits to those gay couples who do choose to marry. To them marriage will be important regardless of whether others choose not to marry. As to the harm gay-marriage opponents claim will be produced, it's even harder to see how this tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the population will cause any practical harm to existing marriages or to marriage as an institution. It's true that a low rate of marriage among gays would mean fewer benefits from recognizing same-sex marriages, but it would also mean correspondingly fewer potential harms caused by the existence of such marriages (such as the modeling of bad marital behavior by nonmonogamous gay male couples).
Of course, if you believe that a "change in the definition of marriage" to include same-sex couples is itself harmful to marriage then marriage will be worse off even if no gay couple actually gets married — but then you didn't need this report to make your argument. To me, this definitional fear has always seemed far too abstract to count for much.
There's an interesting correlation in the report not noted by the authors. Gay couples are most likely to get married in places where marriage culture itself is still relatively strong. Thus, the highest rates of marriage among gays have occurred in the United States (Massacusetts) and Canada, with much lower rates in Europe. It's just a correlation, but it's hard to believe that gay couples are unaffected by the respect accorded marriage generally in the societies in which they live. Marriage will be less attractive as an option to them if, as in Europe, it's already atrophied to the point that even opposite-sex couples are widely choosing unmarried cohabitation. That point was already reached in much of Europe before gay marriage became a reality in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain. For gay marriage to have a strong influence in the lives of gay citizens, marriage itself must have a strong influence in the lives of all citizens. For those of us who support gay marriage, this correlation suggests that we should also be concerned generally about preserving marriage.
More in another post to come on why marriage rates among gays may be especially low, at least initially.