Evidence from Scandinavia on gay marriage, social conservatism, and slippery slopes:

William Eskridge and Darren Spedale, coauthors of the book "Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We've Learned From the Evidence" (Oxford University Press, 2006), have looked at marriage rates and other evidence of the social effects of recognizing same-sex relationships in the 17 years since Scandinavian countries began doing so.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, (subscriber only) they summarize their findings as follows: Seventeen years after recognizing same-sex relationships in Scandinavia there are higher marriage rates for heterosexuals, lower divorce rates, lower rates for out-of-wedlock births, lower STD rates, more stable and durable gay relationships, more monogamy among gay couples, and so far no slippery slope to polygamy, incestuous marriages, or "man-on-dog" unions. From the op-ed:

[T]here is no evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry weakens the institution. If anything, the numbers indicate the opposite. A decade after Denmark, Norway and Sweden passed their respective partnership laws, heterosexual marriage rates had risen 10.7% in Denmark; 12.7% in Norway; and a whopping 28.8% in Sweden. In Denmark over the last few years, marriage rates are the highest they've been since the early 1970s. Divorce rates among heterosexual couples, on the other hand, have fallen. A decade after each country passed its partnership law, divorce rates had dropped 13.9% in Denmark; 6% in Norway; and 13.7% in Sweden. On average, divorce rates among heterosexuals remain lower now than in the years before same-sex partnerships were legalized.

In addition, out-of-wedlock birthrates in each of these countries contradict the suggestion by social conservatives that gay marriage will lead to great increases in out-of-wedlock births and therefore less family stability for children. In Denmark, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births was 46% in 1989; now it is 45%. In Norway, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 14% in 1980 to 45% right before partnerships were adopted in 1993; now they stand at 51%, a much lower rate of increase than in the decade before same-sex unions. The Swedish trend mirrors that of Norway, with much lower rates of increase post-partnership than pre-partnership.

Is there a correlation, then, between same-sex marriage and a strengthening of the institution of marriage? It would be difficult, and suspect, to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between these trends in heterosexual marriage and marriage rights for gays and lesbians. But the facts demonstrate that there is no proof that same-sex marriage will harm the institution of marriage, or children. An optimistic reading of the facts might even suggest that the energy and enthusiasm that same-sex couples bring to the institution of marriage may cause unmarried heterosexual couples to take a fresh look at marriage as an option.

The authors' caution here about gay marriage as a boon to heterosexual marriage is warranted. Correlation is not causation, and it would presume too much from a mere correlation to conclude that a small number of gay marriages in these societies had a significant positive impact on marriage itself, just as it would presume too much from the opposite correlation (if one existed) that they had a significant negative effect on marriage. But it is at least possible from these numbers to say that gay marriage has not led to any significant harm to marriage as an institution (pace Stanley Kurtz). Every year that goes by adds to the strength of this conclusion.

Eskridge and Spedale also find benefits to gay relationships:

Our research has also uncovered additional social benefits. In dozens of interviews with partnered couples and through other sources, we found that marriage rights had an important beneficial effect not only on the couples themselves, but on their local and national communities as well. Couples reported that their relationships were stronger and more durable, that relationships with family members had deepened, that co-workers had become more tolerant and supportive, and their children felt greater validation by having married parents. Many couples reported a greater emphasis on monogamy, which may be reflected by the fact that national rates of HIV and STD infections declined in each of the Scandinavian countries in the years after they passed their partnership laws.

These are exactly the sorts of effects I'd predict from legal and social recognition of gay families. But I'd be cautious about concluding very much from a series of interviews. There are possible methodological weaknesses in this technique, including small sample size, selection and representativeness of the interviewees, problems in questions and interpretation of answers, dishonesty from interviewees who may tell an interviewer what they think the interviewer wants to hear, etc. An opponent of gay marriage could probably rather easily find same-sex couples who got married and were not monogamous, who divorced quickly, etc., and then write a book based on such interviews. A more systematic and long-term study of gay married couples is needed, but findings like these from Eskridge and Spedale are promising. They are at least developments we should all hope for.

Fears about slippery slopes, commonly expressed whenever there has been a change in marriage policy, have also proven unfounded so far:

Finally, what about the "slippery slope" argument — that same-sex marriage would start a dangerous movement toward legal recognition of socially unacceptable relationships? This hasn't happened in Scandinavia; 17 years later, there are still no calls for recognizing polygamy, incestual marriage or marriage to animals. Danes you ask about the slippery slope think you are joking. They realize that same-sex marriages serve essentially the same goal as opposite-sex marriages: lifetime commitment to your better half, the person who completes you.

Yes, you can find advocates for polygamy and other changes in marriage in Scandinavia and among queer theorists and academics in the United States. But there have always been such advocates, going back to the days of the "free love" movement among radicals in the U.S. in the early 20th century. You can find advocates for anything, complete with a Yahoo group and an organization of the like-minded. Google has been a great resource for slippery-slope fearmongering. But the fact is, neither polygamy nor these other destinations down the slope have caught on as serious legal reform as a result of protecting gay families anywhere in the world.

Eskridge and Spedale conclude:

Rather than scapegoating gay couples as the attackers from which marriage needs "defending," pundits and politicians alike should look to no-fault divorce, prenuptial agreements and legal recognition of heterosexual cohabitation as the real culprits of weakened marriage. As the evidence indicates, societies where gay couples have the rights of marriage seem to be doing just fine.

The debate over gay marriage for the past two decades has largely been a duel of abstractions, hopes and fears, unsupported claims, and hypotheticals. That's been true on both sides of the debate, though for gay families the stakes are far from theoretical. With several countries now recognizing gay marriages, and with almost 1/5 of the U.S. population living in states with gay marriages or civil unions, this period of abstract debate is coming to an end. The debate will start to become an empirical one.

What we can say with confidence so far, based on the evidence, is that the sky doesn't immediately fall when a society recognizes gay relationships. As time passes without the sort of cataclysmic consequences predicted by opponents of gay marriage, we will be able to say more. We may soon be able to say, with good evidence to back it up, that recognzing gay marriage leads to greater stability in gay families, with benefits to gay couples, children raised in gay families, and communities. The signs so far are pointing in the right direction.