Michael and Jenet Erickson: How are same-sex and traditional marriage different?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 11 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In the wake of the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, some same-sex marriage advocates are concluding that it is "now a safe time" to talk about the "difference between gay marriage as pitched and as practiced."

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In the wake of the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, some same-sex marriage advocates are concluding that it is "now a safe time" to talk about the "difference between gay marriage as pitched and as practiced."

In a recent essay subtitled "The Truth About Gay Marriage," Steven Thrasher explains: "In the fight for marriage rights, gay activists have (smartly) put forward couples who embody a familiar form of unity" so that "straight people ... see a life that mirrors their own." This strategy, he writes, has been "a calculated decision to highlight the similarities, not the differences, ... on the road to marriage equality." And it "appears to have been effective politics in changing hearts and minds." (Thrasher's opinion is no outlier; the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association named him their Journalist of the Year 2012.)

Until now, the differences between same-sex and heterosexual relationships have received little public attention. These differences, however, challenge the assumption that "marriage equality" simply means expanding marriage as we now know it to same-sex couples. Specifically, available research reveals that same-sex relationships, on average, depart from the marital norms of prevalence, monogamy and permanence.

Prevalence: Although marriage rates in general are declining, marriage is still the most prevalent heterosexual relationship. Even in those jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage, however, gays and lesbians are much less likely to marry. For example, in Scandinavia and Canada, where gay marriage is already legal, rates of marriage are much lower than among heterosexuals — 20 percent of lesbians and 5 percent of gay men compared to 50 percent of heterosexuals.

Monogamy: The Gay Couples Study out of San Francisco State University, which followed more than 500 gay couples for a period of years, recently found that half of gay male couples reported having an "open" agreement to engage in infidelities with their partner's knowledge. Similar findings were reported for civil unions in Vermont and in a widely respected study in 2004. A new word is even being used to describe these arrangements — "monogamish."

Permanence: Though decades of high divorce rates have taken their toll on marriage's permanence, same-sex couples, especially lesbian couples, are still significantly more likely to break up than traditional heterosexual ones. Studies of registered partnerships in Scandinavia show male couples breaking up at twice the rate of heterosexual marriages, and lesbian couples breaking up at a rate that is even 77 percent higher than that of gay male couples. That finding is repeated in multiple studies, including in Great Britain where after four years, 88 percent of married opposite sex couples remained together, 67 percent of opposite-sex cohabiting couples and only 37 percent of same-sex cohabiters.

To be very clear, the above-cited research does not — in any way — suggest that the departure among same-sex couples from the norms of prevalence, monogamy and permanence are attributable to an individual's sexual orientation. And the suggestion that it is evidence of any inherent characteristic among gay and lesbian individuals is an affront to the dignity and respect owed to everyone. Thrasher notes that gay-rights groups are reticent to discuss, for example, infidelity among gay men "out of fear that anti-gay activities will bludgeon them with a charge of sexual promiscuity, as a reason to deny them equal rights."

Undoubtedly, many gays and lesbians yearn to experience a lifelong, committed marriage that resembles traditional norms. Some have suggested that it is, in reality, decades of discrimination that have fostered same-sex relationships that do not follow these norms. Among others, Nathaniel Frank at Slate hopes that "legal gay marriage might provide the cultural and legal encouragement for monogamy that the gay community has been missing."

But many others want the reverse — that marriage be changed to adopt the norms among same-sex relationships. Thrasher argues that open, non-monogamous arrangements "can be built right into the institution of marriage."

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