Marriage will have one of three consequences for gay families united in marriage: they will be better off, worse off, or it will have no effect on them. It’s hard to imagine how marriage would have no effect on their lives, and even harder to imagine how they would be made worse off than they are now. So married gay couples should be better off than unmarried gay couples in terms of the durability, happiness, and stability of their relationships. Similarly, their children should be better off in many ways.
The only question, then, is what the magnitude of these benefits will be. Here we run into some thorny issues.
One possibility is that we could simply extrapolate the benefits from marriage that opposite-sex couples enjoy over unmarried people. If these benefits can simply be extrapolated, the benefits to gay families united in marriage would then be huge as compared to unmarried people.
Another possibility is that gay families united in marriage will capture some, but not all, of the magnitude of the benefits that straight families derive from it. Why not expect that they will get the full benefit from marriage? There are, I think two reasons for this that apply to both gay male and lesbian couples, and one additional reason that applies only to gay male couples. If my analysis is right, lesbian couples will probably capture somewhat more of the benefits of marriage than will gay men. But we must be careful not to exaggerate these possible limitations on how much of the benefit of marriage gay families will get.
Here are two limiting factors on the magnitude of the marriage benefit to lesbian and gay male couples:
(1) It will take time for some gay people, generations of whom have led their lives with no expectation of marriage, to orient their lives and relationships toward the possibility of the deeper commitment marriage involves. While the most traditionally minded gay couples will likely be disproportionately represented among the new marriages, even some of these couples will need time to adjust. This will, I think reduce to a small degree some of the caretaking benefits that we could otherwise expect. But I suspect this will be a very small difference, and will quickly fade.
(2) There will initially be some social resistance to the idea that gay marriages are real marriages, so the social reinforcement of them will be on average weaker than it would be for a straight couple. This will reduce to some extent, at least initially, the expected social benefit a straight couple could expect. As time passes and the people around these couples, including their extended families, become accustomed to gay marriage, this social benefit will increase. I also think this will tend to happen rapidly for the immediate family and friends of gay couples, who are unusually likely to be thrilled that their loved one is getting hitched. Resistance to gay marriage will last longest and remain deepest among people who don’t know any openly gay people, or who at least don’t know any gay people who want to marry. But the resistance of these strangers to gay marriage matters least for the social benefit that couples get from marriage. What matters most is that their close families and friends fully support their marriages.
Both of these limitations on the expected benefits are transitory and small, so lesbian couples at least should get something approaching the full benefit of marriage almost right away. Since they will be half or more of all gay marriages, and since they are more likely to be raising children, the individualistic benefits to their families should be quite large.
Finally, here is third possible limiting factor on the magnitude of the benefit that will apply only to gay-male couples:
(3) There is a traditionalist objection to gay marriage that runs something like this: “Gay men are promiscuous, more than straight men, straight women, or lesbians. That makes them unlikely to benefit much from marriage. It is not marriage that settles men down, giving them the health and other benefits of marriage. It is women who do this. Women will be absent from gay male marriages, and thus much of the benefit of marriage will be absent from their marriages.” If this is right, it may seriously limit both the caretaking and social benefits gay male couples get from marriage. Let’s call this the promiscuity objection to gay marriage (the promiscuity objection is also offered to show how gay marriage might loosen marital norms of fidelity for everybody, about which I’ll say more in the coming days).
Several observations should be made about the promiscuity objection that make it a very weak factor in the magnitude of the benefits to be expected from gay marriage.
First, it does not question the benefits that should be obtained by married lesbian couples, who will probably be among the most monogamous of all married couples on average, and who may well end up being at least half of all gay married couples. So 50% of the magnitude issue is already off the table. It is not really an objection to gay marriage at all; it is an objection only to guy marriage.
Second, even as applied to gay male couples, it goes only to the magnitude of the benefits; it does not negate the possibility of any benefit at all. Thus, even if the promiscuity objection is largely correct in its empirical claims about men, gay male couples should still enjoy the legal, caretaking, and social benefits to some extent.
Third, there is no good evidence for the junk-science idea that gay men are freakishly promiscuous, even in the absence of marriage. They are somewhat more promiscuous, yes, but not hyper-promiscuous. My take on this complex issue, drawing largely on Eugene’s analysis two years ago on this blog, can be found here .
Fourth, surely socialization within a gay culture that has never had marriage, combined with the stigma and even criminality long associated with attachments to members of the same sex, has had some effect on rates of promiscuity and overall stability in relationships. The promiscuity objection takes a possible effect of the lack of marriage as a “natural” condition of men or gay men, and then uses that effect as an argument for justifying the very result (no marriage) that helped to produce it. This is circular. Marriage, because of the social and individual expectations that accompany it, should have the effect of somewhat reducing levels of promiscuity among gay male couples, even if it does not eliminate the differences between them and male-female or lesbian couples.
Fifth, the most traditionally minded and monogamously committed gay male couples are the ones most likely to marry. As male sexual liberationists never tire of pointing out, marriage is not for them. Thus, whatever moderate difference in rates of promiscuity there are between gay men and others, these differences are likely to be smaller in the pool of gay-male couples who get married.
Sixth, conservative social theory would predict that marriage itself, and not just the presence of women in the relationship, should have some domestication effect on men. It would predict, I think, that men simply cohabiting with women will have higher rates of promiscuity than men who marry their female partners. This effect is obviously not produced solely by women demanding and policing monogamy, since women are present in both the unmarried opposite-sex cohabitation and the marriage. It must be that marriage itself adds something to the pressure to settle down. The reasons for this are complex, but they surely have to do both with the seriousness with which people take themselves and their relationships when they are married and with the seriousness with which others treat their marital bond.
All of this points toward the conclusion that the promiscuity concern is a lot of sound and fury, signifying something, but very little.
Both gay male and lesbian couples will get the full legal benefits of marriage, and a large and growing portion of the caretaking and social benefits that we expect when people marry. Much of this same analysis will apply to their children, who will get the full legal benefits of marriage and will enjoy a large and growing amount of the benefit that can be expected from the increased stability of their families.
Similarly, bracketing until tomorrow the possibility of some negative effects, gay marriage will have one of three effects on the communities in which these gay families live: the communities will be helped, harmed, or not at all affected. Here any positive effect on the community will likely be very small since there will be so few gay couples. Since, as I’ll argue, we should not reasonably expect any harmful effect from gay marriage, that leaves us with some positive effect on the communities in which these gay families will live.