E.J. Graff, Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.
While you were enjoying November’s tilt away from the far right, there’s some more good news you may have missed: The world is steadily warming toward same-sex couples. Just two days ago, the U.K. celebrated the one-year anniversary of its civil partnership law, which legally recognizes same-sex couples. And in November, both Israel and South Africa (a very odd couple indeed) joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain in recognizing marriages between two women or two men. That brings to total number of nations that have done so to six, in as many years, with the Scandinavian countries now jockeying to see which will be next.
South Africa’s move has been predicted for years in part because its post-apartheid constitution includes a clause banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still, it was thrilling when the South African parliament voted 230 to 41 in favor of the new law. Israel’s situation was different, albeit instructive for those who believe marriage should be left to religions. Because Israel has no civil marriage—religious authorities administer their religions’ marriage and divorce laws—inter-religious or non-religious couples are forced to fly elsewhere to marry, and afterwards to register their marriage with the state. That’s what five lesbian and gay couples did, getting married in Canada—and on November 21, Israel’s top court ruled that those marriages, too, being valid where performed, must be registered and treated as valid in Israel.
But full marriage, with use of the legally powerful but contentious M word, is just the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, almost all the developed countries recognize same-sex couples under some other name. All the Scandinavian countries have “registered partnership” laws, which are marriages without the magic word—and will almost certainly be upgrading to full marriage in the next few years. Other jurisdictions with such laws already on the books include most of Australia, states in Argentina and Brazil, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
But wait, there’s more. To our south, Mexico City just passed a civil unions law; the Mexican state of Coahuila is working on one as well. In September, Uruguay’s senate passed a civil unions bill by 26 to 2; it’s expected to sail through the house. The Colombian senate recently passed a civil unions bill. Ireland, where citizens favor civil unions by between 64 and 80 percent (depending on the poll), has a commission working on its bill.
So why has the U.S. lagged on legal recognition for two women or two men who want to care for each other in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, until death (or divorce) do them part? For several reasons. First, because we have the largest fundamentalist voting bloc outside the Muslim world. Second, because unlike much of the developed world—and unlike Europe through most of history—we have “either/or” marriage systems, with no intermediate legal recognition for couples who haven’t taken formal vows. Third, and most important, because the U.S. isn’t a single nation at all, in the sense that’s true in, say, Australia or Spain. We’re actually 50 tightly yoked nations, with 50 different sets of marriage laws. Although Massachusetts and Alabama are no more likely to agree on the finer points of marriage law than are Denmark and Poland, American states’ legal fates (and media coverage on social issues) are far more closely bound together.
And yet even here in the U.S., things are looking up. After marrying more than 8,000 same-sex couples, Massachusetts has more or less forgotten about the issue—although some parts of the state are immensely proud of going first, and furious about our outgoing governor’s demagoguery in opposition. (Our new African American governor, Deval Patrick, is a firm marriage supporter. In the state legislature, marriage opponents keep losing their seats to marriage supporters; no marriage supporter has yet been defeated.) Legally, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, Boston marriages are presumed valid and would be upheld if they got to court. And New York’s governor-elect Eliot Spitzer says he favors opening marriage to same-sex pairs—and will work to make that happen.
Once again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Do you remember the national outcry just seven years ago when the Vermont Supreme Court ordered its legislature to come up with full equality for same-sex pairs, and the Green Mountain state invented the term “civil union”? New Jersey’s court did the same this year—and there’s been scarcely a peep about it nationwide. (In theory, the New Jersey legislature could gender-neutralize its marriage laws instead of expanding its civil unions statute, but I’m not holding my breath.) Both Connecticut and California have capacious civil unions laws (California’s is technically called “domestic partnership”), and Oregon will probably pass one this year. Sure, these are blue states—but they are still small nations, governing tens of millions of people.
Take California: with 36 million citizens and counting, it’s more populous than Canada, and famously has the eighth-largest economy in the world. The Golden State’s legislature will probably pass a marriage law again this year, which the Governator might veto yet again—or might not. What’s more surprising: despite California’s enormous conservative infrastructure—including the largest Mormon population outside Utah, a very active evangelical movement (including the parish of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life ), Orange County and conservative rural and agricultural regions—this year, opponents could not even get enough signatures to put an anti-marriage amendment on the ballot.
Meanwhile, things look good in the purple states as well. Remember those anti-gay constitutional amendments and statutes that you heard so much about a few years ago? Outside evangelical communities, support is fading like a late spring frost. Arizona shot down such a bill this November—the first time voters have done so, and a good sign for the future. Lessons from that campaign are being totted up carefully by LGBT activists and funders. And while seven other states passed anti-marriage constitutional amendments, the margins were much lower than those in 2004. South Dakota’s amendment squeaked by with only 52 percent of the vote, and Colorado’s got only 56—despite the fact that Colorado is home to Focus on the Family’s long-established statewide anti-gay machine. On average, this year’s amendments passed with seven percent less of the vote—an astonishing drop in two years. According to political scientists Patrick Egan and Kenneth Sherrill, who’ve just released a paper comparing support for the 2004 and 2006 amendments, that’s in no small part because support for such amendments is dropping precipitously among non-evangelical voters—a good sign for most of the country (except the former Confederate states).
None of this is happening by itself: Gay and pro-gay progressive funders have been carefully investing in these campaigns (including building an infrastructure for future battles), as well as in taking back state legislatures and congressional seats from the right—which will be especially important in 10 or 15 years, when it’s time to repeal the amendments that have already been passed.
But the biggest news is this: American opinion keeps ticking steadily farther in favor of recognizing same-sex couples, a few points more each year. A November 2006 Fox News poll showed that, among likely voters, the nation was divided into thirds on marriage, civil unions or no recognition at all—30/30/32 (with 7 percent unsure). That’s a real gain since Fox's March 2004 poll, when the spread was 20/33/40. Other polls show different numbers, but the same movement. And that steady upward tick has been consistent on all LGBT issues over the past 20 years. Trust me, you haven’t seen opinions change this fast on any other social issue in your lifetime. Americans, like others all over the world, are slowly but steadily getting comfortable with their LGBT sisters, uncles, neighbors and coworkers—and becoming more and more willing to have the state recognize their bonds.
So I’m ready to put down $100 on this proposition: Twenty years from today, most (maybe even all) of the United States—like so many of our neighbors to the north, south, east and west—will be celebrating and recognizing same-sex marriages. Anyone ready to pony up?