Wednesday, October 18, 2006

COLUMN -- Effort to suppress same-sex marriage engenders more same-sex couples

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:20 AM |  

Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006

OK, enough about same-sex marriage. It's a distraction from important issues. People on the street don't care. A gay marriage amendment is unnecessary. We have a law. Let's move on.

Would that we could. What politicians and a gay-marriage-weary straight society are missing is this: The "unnecessary" debate, right here in Ole and Lena's Minnesota, has set a rising level of expectations among an increasing number of same-sex couples. The reality is it's time to grasp the inevitable and make it look like a plan.

Based on data from the American Community Survey (which replaces the Census Bureau's long-form document), the number of self-identified same-sex couples in Minnesota increased 76 percent in the past five years, the third largest percentage increase in the nation (9,147 couples in 2000 to 16,081 in 2005).

Is this the lavender horde that Defense of Marriage Act supporters have been warning us about?

According to analysis of the survey data by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA, the increase in same-sex couples is a combination of more couples forming relationships and — even more — same-sex couples willing to acknowledge existing relationships.

"Most likely, as stigma associated with same-sex partnering and homosexuality decreases, more same-sex couples are willing to identify themselves as such on government surveys," said Gary Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Institute and author of the study.

The study also pulled other interesting trends from the ACS data:

• The 10 states with the largest percentage increases in same-sex couples were states with controversial same-sex marriage debates.

• Of the top 10 states, eight are Midwestern, including Wisconsin (81 percent), Minnesota (76 percent) and Iowa (58 percent).

• Since 2000, most of the top 10 have passed laws and constitutional amendments that deny marriage and sometimes other unions for same-sex couples.

"Some might expect that heated debate and disappointing losses would drive gay men and lesbians and bisexual people back into anonymity and silence. But the campaigns against gay rights may have had the opposite effect," said M.V. Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute. "By launching anti-gay campaigns in the Midwest, gay rights opponents greatly increased the visibility of gay people and issues."

Welcome to the paradox of rising expectations. In every movement to right a perceived social wrong, a fringe element with no apparent social upside (who hence emphasize their differences from the traditional) becomes the image of the enemy to supporters of the status quo. In this case, these are the leather- and tutu-clad lads who wind up in defense-of-marriage literature and DVDs. Only after a movement has gained some visibility, some credibility and some respectability do suit-and-tie supporters, people invested in society with something material to lose, risk identifying with it.

Here's where the paradox of rising expectations kicks in. Even as overt public discrimination against same-sex couples grows smaller, the inequities of law loom larger. The Williams Institute study suggests same-sex couples are more at ease declaring their relationships. They do so, however, with expectations of expanding their participation in society on equal terms with heterosexuals. Taking a risk, they are impatient with barriers to fulfillment of expectations of equality.

Ironically, the biggest barrier to full recognition of same-sex marriage is not those standing in opposition to it. It's lukewarm politicians ostensibly dedicated to gay rights who oppose an amendment banning same-sex marriage but who will say neither "nay" nor "yea" to same-sex marriage. Excusing politicians who oppose DOMA and hedge the larger question to get re-elected isn't going to cut it in the face of the rising expectations of a growing population of same-sex couples.

Political hedging on same-sex marriage is about at its end; so is simply declaring the debate unnecessary and shoving the issue to the back burner. When people with status and prestige in their communities declare their same-sex relationships, they do so with purpose and expectation. The ACS data tells us that process is well under way.

Like it or not, the same-sex marriage debate isn't going away anytime soon. Political conflict is inevitable. It's time to recall that government isn't in the business of making moral judgments. Government resolves conflicts. It's time to, legislatively, plot an orderly course with measurable milestones to full parity, even civil marriage, for same-sex couples.