Notes From Babel

Book Review: When Gay People Get Married by M.V. Lee Badgett

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Before the blogging world got consumed with health care and the economy and stopped talking about gay marriage a few months ago, I heard M.V. Lee Badgett talk about her then-forthcoming book, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage (N.Y. Univ. Press, Aug. 1, 2009).  It seemed this was just the opportunity I needed to shut up and get some actual facts about the topic I was spending so much of my limited free time thinking and writing about.

Sadly, Badgett’s book is short on analysis.  Although she does provide some interesting poll and other social data, the analysis and conclusions seem to be drawn as much from anecdotes as from the actual cited data. Even more frustrating is that, other than a handful of anecdotes, the book didn’t spent much time painting a picture of the marriage culture in the Netherlands (Badgett’s focus group).  Badgett provides some cute stories about some of the couples she spoke with, but seems to be the wrong approach right out of the gate.  A truer picture of cultural attitudes would be gleaned through its expression in other aspects of life—art, literature, film and television, etc.  When Gay People Get Married doesn’t discuss its subject matter in relation to these other aspects of culture. For my part, that was the whole point of reading the book.

Aside from these general disappointments, Badgett seems to be unable to spot the inconsistencies in her own arguments.  For example, she discusses how, for many lesbian couples, same-sex marriage is an important way for feminists to reinvigorate and politicize their attack on the misogynistic and outmoded institution:

Same-sex couples could help make marriage more equal for women.  She argued, “Well, the way to change [marriage] is to marry us to a woman as homosexuals. . . . I don’t think I would have ever married when I was with a guy. . . . It would be too traditional—but now you are breaking a tradition as well.”

Couples used a similar kind of reframing to get around their view that “marriage is burgerlijk,” as quite a few people noted in the interviews.  They translated “burgerlijk” for me as square, old-fashioned, traditional, tacky, or bourgeois.

(At p. 36.)  However, the universality and tradition of marriage is central to Badgett’s theme, as she recognizes elsewhere:

And not only does marriage send a unique signal, but that signal is understood by those who receive it.  “One of the amazing things about marriage is people understand it, you know,” Martha pointed out.  “Two-year-olds understand it.  It’s a social context, and everyone knows what it means.”  Other couples pointed out that other countries accept the meaning of marriage, unlike registered partnerships, and in some cases recognize the marriages of Dutch same-sex couples but not registered partnerships.

(At p. 58.)  And again:

Our ability to infer similarity or to impose uniformity is limited when it comes to other kinds of couples.  Legal marriage is mapped onto a social and cultural institution. The legal and cultural aspects mutually create an institution called marriage that is reinforced by both aspects and enforced by a larger society when the law is silent.  Other kinds of relationships cannot draw on the same power.

(At p. 164.)  But then Badgett confusingly concludes her book by stating “[o]pening up marriage to same-sex couples is just the latest step toward renewing marriage’s continuing relevance in the twenty-first century.”  (At p. 213.)  On the other hand, Badgett does not seem concerned with the desire to “feel equal and supported” felt by polyamorous families.  (At p. 143.)  Thus, it is difficult to know how far marriage ought to be reinvented.  It would seem that the impetus towards reinvention would diminish as the reinvention reduces the extent to which “marriage” will continue to be something universally understood.  That is, so long as monogamy is necessary to maintaining a universally understood and recognized meaning behind marriage, same-sex marriage advocates will seek to keep polyamorous families out of the tent and out of the debate.

Badgett also attempts to tackle the ephemeral causality issues implied by the title of her book—what happens to a community when gay marriage is legalized?  However, although she cites data throughout the book that suggest that legalized same-sex marriage is more an effect than a cause of social conditions, she bewilderingly plods ahead and asks precisely the wrong question:

The big question here is what happened to marriage after same-sex couples received rights.

(At p. 68.)  Later on, Badgett undermines the relevance of that very question by pointing to the “necessary conditions” that must exist before gay marriage will be accepted by a community:

In fact, high levels of tolerance and cohabitation appear to be necessary conditions for country-level change, with low levels of religiousness and a national level commitment to social spending (on housing, old age, survivors, health, families, employment, unemployment, and income support) adding greatly to the movement toward change.

(At p. 193.)  This is an interesting premise, of course, but not what we are led to expect by Badgett’s question presented earlier in the book, and in the title of the work itself.

Badgett recognizes that marriage is not purely a personal matter, but is a shared public institution that affects our community:

When my Dutch friends Stephanie and Ingrid married without inviting Stephanie’s father, he reacted with anger and a deep sadness.  Even though Stephanie and Ingrid claimed to have married purely as a practical matter on the advice of their accountant, they could not control how other people interpreted their act.  “Their” marriage was no longer their own private matter.

(At p. 115.)  Of course, affecting the community is what marriage is all about, as the feminists mentioned earlier in the book realized all along, but as less politically active same-sex couples might not have.  Instead, Badgett suggests that what most same-sex couples really need is their community’s imprimatur of acceptance:

This recognition of same-sex couples as fitting the idea of “marriage” . . . creates a social and psychological climate of acceptance for same-sex couples that makes gay and lesbian people feel equal and supported.

(At p. 123.)  It becomes clear that extracting this psychological support from society is what Badgett is really after.  In fact, Badgett rejects the argument that the state get out of the marriage business and leave it to churches and other private institutions, because

this method of achieving legal equality would not necessarily generate social fairness . . . .  Disentangling the legal status from a religious ritual would still not be fair to same-sex couples, since they are not likely to be allowed to marry by most religious communities, at least at this time. Since legal “civil unions” would still likely map onto the cultural idea of “marriage” for different-sex couples, same-sex couples would remain locked outside the gates of the cultural institution of marriage, looking on at the privileged group.

(At pp. 158-59.)  This is really the revolutionary moment in Badgett’s book: it is not sufficient that society merely tolerate same-sex families—it must aggressively evolve its cultural institutions in order to make them feel acceptedAnd where those institutions do not evolve quickly enough, the state must be employed as something of a cultural cattle prod.

And indeed, for Badgett, they are not evolving quickly enough in the U.S.  In analyzing the “slow” pace of gay-marriage acceptance in the U.S., she notes:

The slower pace of change and the rapidly mobilized resistance to the idea of marriage for same-sex couples in the United States suggests to some observers that it is just not ready yet.  The political advice to go slow also comes from many directions, including some allies who support the principle of gay equaity.  As Rabbi Michael Lerner points out, “The fact is, there are millions of Americans who believe in equal rights for gays and lesbians . . . but who draw the line at marriage.”

(At p. 175.)  Yet on the next page, Badgett seems confused at how the California Supreme Court decision requiring the recognition of gay marriage could be called “judicial activism”:

The 2008 marriage decision by the California Supreme Court was still called judicial activism by opponents, even though that decision came after eight years of legislatively enacted registered domestic partnerships and the passage of marriage equality legislation not once but twice.

(At p. 176.)

The real question that Badgett leaves with her readers, perhaps unwittingly, is not what happens “when gay people get married,” but what happens when cultures rapidly secularize their cultural institutions and kinship models and rapidly shift more and more control to the state.  Apparently, one thing that happens is same-sex marriage becomes legal.  But if Badgett is correct, whatever changes have been made to marriage in such countries were done before legalization, not after.  The perhaps unintended message of Badgett’s book is that Americans ought, like Europe, to put the whip in the hands of the state to transform our culture.


2 Responses

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  1. […] 18. When Gay People Get Married, M.V. Lee Badgett.  See my book review here. […]

  2. […] progenitors in a family structure firmly entrenched in our culture. As I mentioned in my article, I am familiar with the work of at least one of the “social scientists” repeatedly cited in the ruling, M.V. […]

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