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When Gay People Get Married, An Interview With Author M. V. Lee Badgett

09/24/09- by Lori Hahn (in the interview that follows, Lori Hahn’s questions are italicized).
leebadgettM.V. Lee Badgett recently published her book, When Gay People Get Married, What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage, a work that was researched while living and working in The Netherlands. Dr. Badgett is the research director of the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law. She also directs the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

What gave you the idea to do the study regarding gay marriage in Europe?

I’ve been interested in gay marriage for a long time primarily from the perspective of economics. Thinking about it from that perspective brought me into the public debate about gay marriage.

As I lived in The Netherlands for a while and as things happened with the Goodrich decision here in Massachusetts, I realized there was more to the debate than the economic side. The book itself evolved out of a lot of different experiences while I was there from meeting people who were married and hearing their stories to getting in a debate with Stanley Kurtz, the right-wing political pundit. I took advantage of the fact I could interview couples and that was something that was relatively new for me in terms of research and quite revealing and really, a lot of fun. Working with numbers, which I love, was one thing. Hearing people’s stories, which were exciting and moving and enlightening, well, that piece was my favorite part of my book.

The legalities of gay marriage in Europe aren’t the same, right? Married couples don’t enjoy all the benefits of marriage we do in the US, right?

That’s right. In The Netherlands you get probably three-quarters of all the rights and benefits and obligations just by living together. Marriage itself only adds a bit to that. I think one of the reasons rates are low is because marriage has changed in those places. It’s less common to get married in those places.

In fact lots of the couples I interviewed said their parents were thrilled they got married because their straight brothers or sisters didn’t marry. Siblings and friends are not getting married so they are a little slower to get married. But, people are getting married over time. These decisions are very complex. It might involve two people who need to negotiate – who don’t necessarily agree about whether they should get married. Sometimes they are waiting until they decide to have kids or buy a house together.

badgettHow can we equate what goes on here to what is going on in Europe? European culture seems to generally have a more liberal outlook towards all social institutions. What’s the major difference between there and here?

There certainly are some differences and religion is one of them. We are more religious as a society than most European countries – at least more than the countries which have gay marriage. But we are a lot alike in a lot of ways. We share a common cultural understanding of marriage and laws around marriage. There are some differences, but we are similar in things like how our economies are structured, the role of women, and our relative affluence. It does suggest that some of our decision-making might be similar.

Most interesting for me while in The Netherlands was to understand what marriage meant to people when it did not have a lot of value to it (as far as rights/benefits). When you do see people marrying, it has to be for something more than what we sometimes hear here, “My partner needed health insurance, so we did.”

I ended up tapping into a group of bi-national couples and several couples had one of the partners who were American. The marriage component was very important as to why they lived in The Netherlands – because they couldn’t live together here. The American partner had to give up a job or career to move to the one country that would allow them to live with their Dutch partners.

How can a study like this influence policy here?

What some people have said is that this book is intended to be a rational approach to thinking about marriage. The problem is that the issue is not rational here because it’s all about religion, it’s all about morality. But, I think we’re entering into a new phase of the debate where people do want to know a little more about what it really looks like instead of the wild predictions or fears. Even though there’s not a majority of US people being surveyed who support the concept of gay marriage, if you add together those who support civil unions and gay marriage, that number is over 50%, so there is a growing recognition that same-sex couples need some kinds of protection.

So, what I’m trying to do with the book is use it to challenge some of people’s stereotypes.

I do think people read magazines and blogs and newspapers that help sift through what to think about these topics. I do think that a book that is trying to take a more careful, measured, not-so-emotional look at the issue has a role to play in the debate.

One of the things I noticed was the fact that a rose by any other name is not necessarily a rose. Civil union, domestic partnership, and marriage are not the same. How do we bring that conversation around, in a rational way, to the fact that the terms are not interchangeable? For example, when I was living in Germany, anyone (straight) wanting to marry had to go get a civil marriage with the government and if they wanted a church wedding they could.

France and the Netherlands have something similar – you get married in town hall, it’s secular. There still is a distinction between marriage in Germany and life partnerships.

In the US we have the same thing, but we have a broader definition of who is allowed to officiate, including clergy. The church doesn’t get to decide what it means; it’s determined by the government.

It’s a great thought experiment. Let’s say we changed everything to civil unions instead of marriage. My question would be: How are people going to think about it. You’ve wiped out the concept of legal marriage, but that other huge piece of it, that the historical, social and cultural meanings of marriage are kind of out there floating around and I think they’re going to be attached to whatever you change it into. I think people would still say, “You got married.”

We can’t do that in the US in a situation like California where there’s same-sex domestic partnership and straight marriage because they are two different things. Straight couples cannot get domestic partnerships unless they are over 62 and gay couples can’t get married. So, the word separates out those two groups – this is how you’re different.

The Dutch couples have three options:

1. Live together and be treated as a couple legally

2. Get married to formalize the relations

3. Registered partnerships

Gay and straight couples both are more likely to get married rather than form a partnership to formalize their relationship. The couples I spoke with were very clear. They believed registered partnership is about second-class citizenship. It was a political compromise to keep gays from getting married. They said, “We don’t want to get a registered partnership because we don’t know what it means.”

Even those who haven’t formalized their relationship said that if they did, they would choose marriage – that registered partnerships are, according to one of them a “bit of nothing.” Registered partnerships don’t have a lot of value to them.

What do you see as the next hot-spots?

Jorge Vazquez (US)(R) partner Stanley Doorn (Dutch)(L) and Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen (C)

Jorge Vazquez (US)(R) partner Stanley Doorn (Dutch)(L) and Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen (C)

California is certainly important, but the next hot spot is Maine’s referendum in November. I think that’s quite important to try to defend the right to marry there. Looks like New York and New Jersey are getting close to letting gay people get married or at least having that debate. Some people think Rhode Island might not be in the too distant future. That would give us pretty much the Northeast.

Certainly the other west coast states; Washington and Oregon have had domestic partnerships or civil unions that are giving gay couples some rights. Perhaps those states can transition to marriage.

I think that as more people get married and their friends and family come and see them get married it’s a recognizable, familiar process that they’ll go back home taking that with them and over time experience will dispel the fears and it will make it easier for people to see that giving marriage equality is a good thing – not just for the couples but for everybody.

Excluded in this conversation: The entire Southern Belt.

Yeah! When will that happen? Well, that’s a really tough one. The one state being pointed as not out of the realm of possibility is North Carolina because it doesn’t have a constitutional amendment. I’m from North Carolina originally and it’s not known as a particularly liberal state. There have been some changes. They have some openly gay elected officials there now and a lot of organizing going on so it’s a place to watch.

Thank you Dr. Badgett!

Lori Hahn

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  4. Joe Mustich, Justice of the Peace

    September 28, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Couples have been coming to CT to wed this summer from all around the country, and they are bringing their families and friends along to celebrate with them. Congrats to all. Cheers, Joe Mustich, Justice of the Peace, Washington, Connecticut, USA. I’ve been with my spouse for 30 years and we were married in CT in 2008.

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