Much of the to-do about President Obama’s coming out on gay marriage has focused on (besides the political strategy involved) what it tells us about Americans’ tolerance for homosexuality.
Noteworthy as well is what the to-do tells about Americans’ — gay and straight Americans’ — attitudes towards marriage. In same week that the French nonchalantly elected a president who has twice had an unmarried “partner” rather than a wife — the first time with no fewer than four children – Americans’ arguments about the President’s statement reaffirmed how much we care about marriage.
According to some analyses, the gay-rights movement backed into gay marriage as a political cause. While issues of equal rights, including partner rights such as hospital visitation, have been central to the LBGT agenda, marriage itself was an uncertain goal – distant and perhaps tainted as too conventional a life choice. The religious right found campaigning against gay marriage to be a successful rallying cry. That, in turn, seemed to mobilize gays to fight for it, perhaps many gays who had not cared so much about marriage before the conservative attack. And, probably to every side’s amazement, gay marriage has been winning the battle. In 1996 27% of Americans supported and 68% opposed having “marriages between same-sex couples . . . recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages”; by 2011 a slight majority supported the proposition (Gallup).
One striking aspect of the entire debate is how much value the engaged parties on both sides place on formal, sanctified marriage, especially given the conventional wisdom that marriage is in decline. (See this earlier post on what has really been changing in marriage.) Americans keep saying they want to marry.
Survey data from the 1990s showed that only a few percent of singles under the age of 70 said they did not want to marry (source). In a 2010 Pew survey (available to download here), 89% of American adults had either married or said they were sure they wanted to marry; another 7% were unsure; and only 4% were sure that they wanted to never marry. (Many of the divorced said they did not want to marry again – although most of the divorced do remarry.) I haven’t found data on the percentage of self-identified American gays or lesbians who wish to marry and it is probably lower than for other Americans. Nonetheless, the clamor from the gay community for the right to marry – when just being gay itself has so recently been removed from the list of crimes – is striking.
Some of the opposition to gay marriage is based on the argument that it would undermine the institution of marriage. It seems at least as likely that it would reinforce the institution by growing the percentage of Americans who dream of wedding bells.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.