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Why does marriage equality matter?

Same-sex couples want to marry for all the same reasons as their opposite-sex counterparts.

These reasons include: for legal security, to publicly celebrate their commitment, to provide greater legal protection for their children, or simply because they are in love.

First, we will look at the benefits that flow to same-sex couples who marry. This is followed by the wider social benefits that come from removing discrimination from the Marriage Act and ensuring equality for same-sex couples.

Married partners have immediate access to all relationship entitlements, protections and responsibilities.

A marriage certificate also allows married partners to easily prove their legal rights if challenged, for example in emergency situations. The capacity to quickly and easily prove one’s relationship status is particularly important for same-sex partners because prejudice against same-sex relationships can mean legal rights are denied.

Allowing same-sex couples to be included in such a universal and valued institution as marriage will provide them and their families with real social and cultural benefits.

Landmark research led by Lee Badgett, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, describes and quantifies some of these benefits in two different places that have allowed same-sex marriages for several years, the Netherlands and Massachusetts.

Badgett found that same-sex partners overwhelmingly,

• felt marriage had increased their commitment and their sense of responsibility, and had generally strengthened their relationships

• believed their children were better off after their marriage, chiefly through legal protection for those children and enhanced feelings of security, stability and acceptance in the children, and

• felt participation and acceptance in their extended families and communities had increased because of their marriage

Her conclusion was that,

“Overall, the experiences of same-sex couples in two countries, the United States and the Netherlands, suggests that same-sex couples and their families are strengthened by a policy of marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

There is also a growing body of research showing that married partners, including same-sex married partners, are, on average, healthier, happier and longer lived, than their cohabiting peers, or singles. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, even rates of heart disease, drug use and stress are lower among married partners.

A ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t only disadvantage those same-sex partners who seek to marry.

It disadvantages all same-sex attracted people, including those who are not in a relationship, or who would not marry, even if they could.

It does this by treating them as legally unequal to their heterosexual counterparts, and by not allowing them the same life choices.

Governments restrictions on who gays and lesbians can marry violates their fundamental human rights in the same way the rights of African Americans were once violated by laws which prevented them from marrying who they wished.

The association between the equality in marriage and freedom from second-class status is well understood in the context of the struggle for the civil rights of people of colour.

In 1958, in the midst of the struggle for black civil rights in America, Martin Luther King Jr declared,

“When any society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom.” 

Consider all the other groups in society, along with people of colour and same-sex attracted people, who at one time or another have been denied the right to marry the partner of their choice: women, people from differing faiths, people with disabilities.

What they all have in common is that they have been regarded as too immature or irresponsible to make what is arguably the most important decision any individual can ever make, the choice of a life-long partner.

In the same vein, the gradual acceptance that members of these groups are fully adult, fully citizens and fully human, has been accompanied by an acceptance of their right to marry whomever they wished.

Exclusion of same-sex attracted people from marriage also sends out the message that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is acceptable.

The negative message sent out by discrimination in marriage foster prejudice, discrimination and unequal treatment against same-sex relationships in the wider community.

There is a substantial body of social research which shows the vulnerability of same-sex attracted people to prejudice, discrimination and unequal treatment.

These surveys have consistently found that same-sex attracted people experience unacceptably high levels discrimination in the workplace, discrimination in other aspects of their lives including at school and in their families, and hate-motivated assault.

Studies have also directly linked bans on same-sex marriages to higher levels of discrimination.

While marriage equality will not remove all prejudice, discrimination and unequal treatment against same-sex attracted people, it will be an important step toward this goal.

Worst of all, a ban on same-sex marriages disadvantages same-sex attracted people by sending out the message that they are less capable of love and commitment than heterosexual people.

It says their relationships are less stable, less resilient and of less value to the partners involved and their family and friends.

These negative messages, plus the devaluation and discrimination already cited, have a profound impact on the health and well-being of same-sex attracted people and their families.

Same-sex attracted people are more likely to experience below-average health outcomes including higher levels of depression, due to this prejudice and discrimination. The statistics are particularly alarming for younger and newly-identifying LGBTI people who have consistently higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, early school leaving, conflict with peers and parents and suicidal thoughts, all directly related to the discrimination and prejudice they experience.

A number of researchers have shown there is a direct link between legal bans on same-sex marriage and higher levels of stress and anxiety, lower self esteem, and greater incidence of mental and physical health problems among same-sex attracted people.

The debate on same-sex marriage often focuses on the benefits of equality for same-sex partners, but there are also benefits for marriage as a legal and cultural institution.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry will admit many more couples who seek to uphold the core values of marriage and are enthusiastic for the institution. It will send out the message that marriage is defined by love and respect not prejudice and discrimination. It will also prompt opposite-sex couples to re-value wedlock as an institution in which the over-arching values are love, devotion, and not least, social inclusion.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry will show that marriage is relevant and resilient enough to embrace changing social attitudes in the same way it did last century when married women were given legal equality and interracial marriages were allowed.

Evidence that marriage equality uplifts marriage can be found in those places where the recognition of same-sex relationships has a relatively long history. In Scandinavia the formal recognition of same-sex relationships has been in place for a generation and same-sex marriage is now widely allowed.

At the same time, marriage rates among heterosexual couples have increased by as much as 30% and divorce rates have gone down. Similarly, those US states that allow same-sex couples full marriage rights have the lowest rates of divorce among heterosexual partners (the state which has had marriage equality the longest, Massachusetts, has the lowest of all). A review of these examples published in The Wall Street Journal in 2006 agrees none of this is not a coincidence.

“There is no evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry weakens the institution. If anything, the numbers indicate the opposite”

Some religious organisations and officials wish to legally marry same-sex partners in the same way as they legally marry opposite-sex partners.

Denominations that seek the religious freedom to legally marry same-sex couples include the Unitarians, Progressive Synagogues and the Quakers.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry would be a financial boon for both the private sector and  governments.

We know from university studies that 54% of same-sex couples would marry if they could. If each of these couples spent about the same amount on their marriage ceremony that others spend on theirs, they would inject hundreds of  millions of dollars into the economy. This amount includes an injection of many millions of dollars into government revenues through marriage license fees.

To address the practical legal problems faced by unmarried same-sex partners, some people advocate civil unions.

(“Civil union” is a generic term that includes a registered partnership, a civil partnership, and all other formally-recognised personal union).

However, civil unions do not offer the same legal benefits as marriage, even when the law says they should. This is because they are not as widely understood or respected. Several recent reports into the operation of civil schemes in Europe and North America confirm that civil unions are not always recognised by hospitals, schools, insurers and even government officials.

Lack of recognition is also a problem when civil union partners travel  internationally. But even if a solution can be found to these practical problems, legal unions other than marriage do not give same-sex couples the same social and cultural recognition that comes with marriage. In the words of American marriage equality advocate, Beth Robinson, “Nobody writes songs about civil unions”.

Worse, according to the reports mentioned above civil unions may actually encourage discrimination against same-sex partners and downgrade the status of their relationships by entrenching a second-class status .

Civil rights historians like Barbara Cox have drawn the parallel between civil unions and former “Jim Crow laws” in the American south.

“…restricting same-sex couples to civil unions is reminiscent of the racism that relegated African-Americans to separate railroad cars and separate schools. Our society’s experiences with ‘separate and equal’ have shown that separation can never result in equality because the separation is based on a belief that a distance needs to be maintained between those in the privileged position and those placed in the inferior position.”

Civil unions have not only not fulfilled their promise of equal rights and respect for same-sex couples, they appear to have made matters worse. Instead of eliminating discrimination they have entrenched it. Instead of removing stigma they have inflamed it. Instead of being a step towards full equality they are a step away.

This is probably why same-sex couples consistently show they prefer marriage to other forms of legal recognition. In US states where both marriage and civil unions are available to same-sex couples the result is always a higher take-up rate for marriage.

Please support marriage equality.

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