September 03, 2012

Gay Marriage Made Me Get Married

WynnAuthorPhoto1By Jonathan Wynn

Call me old fashioned, but before I went to Robyn’s father to ask for her hand, I went to Human Resources. I wanted to know if my partner could share my health care benefits as a civil union or a common-law marriage. “Nope. Massachusetts allows anyone to get married, so we don’t recognize ‘registered partnerships.’” The advisor on the other end of the line giggled and added, “It looks like you’re going to have to get hitched, son.” She hung up the phone still chuckling.

We’d been together for seven years. “What happens when a feminist rapper and a sociologist get together?” sounded more like a joke in search of a punch line rather than a description of a couple in search of a registry. As a musician who values feminist ideals and gay rights, Robyn was uncomfortable with the patriarchal and heteronormative trappings of marriage. As a sociologist (and son of divorced parents, and both sets of grandparents), I was keenly aware of the issues and personal struggles with marriage as an institution. We were also uncomfortable with both the religious norms and the billion dollar wedding industry surrounding it as well.

On the other hand, we grew more aware of the hard-to-ignore benefits and incentives to marriage, beyond its deep and affirming emotional tie. I garnered a great job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and I wanted to share my benefits with the person I was spending the rest of my life with.

There is a health care benefit for married people, but we realized there are other perks too, like tax breaks and cheaper auto insurance. In fact, the Government Accounting Office reported there are 1,138 federal benefits, rights and responsibilities associated with marriage (see GAO-04-353R) that same-sex couples are denied. While we want to stand in unison with our friends, and defy the institution of marriage until all have equal rights, well, there’s something to be said for joining in with the hope that the stability of our marriage in our state will carry some larger weight.

Here’s that greater heft: Despite dire predictions about the institution of marriage crumbling due to homosexuals earning the same rights as the rest of us, the wheels have not come off. Massachusetts’s divorce rates have not skyrocketed since the state Supreme Judicial Court opened the doors for all to marry in November 2003. They are the lowest divorce rates in the nation, below pre-WWII levels.

My colleague, Professor and Director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration, M.V. Lee Badgett, compares across countries in her book When Gay People Get Married and concludes: “nothing much changed as a result of recognition of same-sex couples.” Numbers from the CDC indicate that, after a slight uptick in Massachusetts’ marriage rates, they returned to their normal trajectories after 2004’s legal decision. Maybe it is dawning on us as a nation: last year marked the first time a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage.

All this in the face of a vocal minority that fights hard against people wanting to join together in marriage through groups like Kirk Cameron’s National Organization for Marriage and the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance, and the 1996 “Defense of Marriage Act” (passed into law during the Clinton administration). The groups behind these movements for ”traditional” marriage will often argue on two premises: first, that Genesis states a marriage is between a man and a woman and two, that same-sex marriage “redefines” marriage. There are reasonable challenges to both claims.

First, if the Bible provides the example of a “traditional” marriage, it’s not an even one: Lamech, Esau, Jacob, Ashur, Gideon, David, Solomon, Rehaboam, Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar all had multiple wives, Abijah had 14, and Lot—the only man worth saving in Sodom—has sex with his two daughters.

Second, we’ve already redefined traditional marriage in the United States: the Supreme Court’s 1967, Loving Vs. Virginia ruling, struck down anti-miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriage. (Everyday Sociology blogger Janice Prince Inniss wrote a wonderful post detailing the current state of interracial marriage.)

The National Organization for Marriage and the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance argue for marriage based upon values, but there are plenty of ways to understand why we would engage in this kind of social activity outside of “traditional values.” As Robyn and I planned our wedding (we did a surprise wedding which is a whole other story, but one that turns out to be quite in vogue), I could not help but chuckle that I had long used marriage as an example of Max Weber’s verstehen and theory of social action. (Everyday Sociology blogger Sally Raskoff wrote a post about that, too.)

There are, in Weber’s lights, four reasons for social action: affective (emotion-based), traditional (habit or tradition-based), value-rational (based upon values deemed as paramount), and instrumental-rational (based upon efficiency). Marriage, I tell my Introduction to Sociology students, could be analyzed through this lens.

Two people who just love each other to pieces get married for affective reasons. Robyn’s parents, it turned out, got married so they could live together off base while he was serving in the military (i.e., instrumental-rational). Marriage in this day and age has all sorts of instrumental-rational reasons: the tax incentives to filing jointly, legal ramifications, and, as I already mentioned, health care concerns. Marriage is a social action that requires analysis from the perspective of the acting subjects, and that’s where verstehen comes in: empathetic understanding of the actors themselves. These are not mutually-exclusive. An interpretative understanding means that you can tease out the multiple reasons for a social act. To say that I got married for health care alone isn’t quite accurate. There are affective reasons as well!

So, Robyn and I want to offer more uncomfortable truth for the heroes of traditional marriage to contemplate. Rather than undermining the institution, same-sex marriage led this straight couple to marriage. If you look at it in a slightly different way, you could say we’re happily gay married.


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I liked your last sentence. I think when people stop thinking of gay people like another species they will understand that whatever gay people benefit from as a human being also does good for the society they live in. So gay or not everybody should be able to get married. This only makes the world more equal and fair. Congrats!

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