For gay couples, married matters

Most say they feel more committed, accepted by peers

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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Five years after the first same-sex weddings in Massachusetts, gay and lesbian couples express deeply traditional reasons for deciding to wed and cite equally conventional benefits flowing from marriage, according to a study being released this week.

A significant majority of the 558 gay men and women surveyed said that since marrying, they feel more committed to their spouses, more accepted in their community, and more likely to be open about their sexual orientation at work.

The survey indicates that there is something universal about the legal protections and social advantages afforded by the institution of marriage, said the study's authors from the University of California, Los Angeles as well as independent researchers. And it suggests, they said, that a ritual once scorned even by many same-sex couples has the power to ease discrimination.

"This really helps us confirm and makes us understand why same-sex couples demand marriage - if it's just about the legal rights, why wouldn't they be happy with civil partnerships?" said Stephanie Coontz author of "Marriage, A History."

"They want access to that word that is so highly valued by our society and by other people.

"It is one thing not to invite your child's girlfriend or boyfriend to dinner," said Coontz, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "It is quite another thing not to invite the spouse."

Same-sex marriages began in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, after the Supreme Judicial Court declared that gay and lesbian couples had the right to wed. The ruling ignited a political and social maelstrom in Massachusetts and beyond, but since then four other states - Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, and Vermont - have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. Lawmakers in New Hampshire are currently debating whether to make their state the next to do so.

The study was prepared and paid for by UCLA's Williams Institute, which examines legal and public policy issues related to sexual orientation and is funded by foundations and individuals, including supporters of gay marriage.

The authors of the survey, which consisted of about 30 questions, said they regarded it as an initial assessment of gay marriage, largely designed to explore issues arising during public debate rather than to delve into more personal aspects of couples' relationships. For example, researchers asked whether respondents' children had faced taunting as a result of their parents' same-sex marriage - only 5 percent had - but did not ask how happily married partners were.

"We've been interested in the impact of marriage for a long time," said Lee Badgett, researcher director of the Williams Institute and senior author of the study. "I've been combing the universe for data, but there just aren't that many places to look at same-sex couples who are literally married."

The marriage questions were included in a larger online health survey conducted this month by the state Department of Public Health. The agency found potential respondents through a database maintained by the gay rights group MassEquality, which includes donors as well as people identified as being in same-sex marriages, and invitations to participate were e-mailed. About 4 percent responded.

Those surveyed were not a randomly selected population - something that would have been far more costly and difficult to accomplish - so the findings are not representative of the more than 12,000 gay married couples in Massachusetts. But Coontz and a Wellesley College researcher, Michelle Porche, praised it as a robust, well-executed study.

Virtually all of the married men and women who responded - 93 percent - said "love and commitment" were the prime factors in their decision to wed.

Marriage appears to have forged stronger ties between spouses and their families and even colleagues on the job. When asked whether marriage had created a stronger bond with their partners, nearly three-quarters said it had. And families, the gay couples said, reacted with overwhelming acceptance of their marriage: 82 percent said their parents responded positively, while 91 percent indicated siblings were receptive.

Eight of 10 study participants said that being married made them more likely to disclose their sexual orientation to their coworkers and doctors.

"That suggests there's something powerful about that ritual, about that institution," Badgett said. "People feel more accepted by society."

Porche, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, said the findings mirror those of a smaller, although more intensive, study she conducted by interviewing couples not long after gay marriage was legalized.

"Studies like these help us from afar to get to know people a little bit better," Porche said. "The more people who have reservations about gay marriage can really meet married same-sex couples and get to know them and their experience, the more they would be open to supporting" the right to marry.

Still, advocates on both sides of the gay marriage debate remain starkly divided in their beliefs.

Kris Mineau, a leader of the failed effort to place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot in Massachusetts, said he remained convinced that voters should have the final say on who has the right to marry. And, he said, he has not wavered.

"There's nothing in that poll that suggests to me any reason why marriage should be changed summarily to meet the personal desires of a small segment of the population," said Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "I see no reason to do this unless the entire population agrees this is in the best interest of our society."

Scott Gortikov, executive director of MassEquality, said the study's findings suggest that the benefits of same-sex marriage extend beyond the couple.

"What the results are saying is that equal marriage makes for a healthier and happier family life and, necessarily, a healthier and happier and more solid society," Gortikov said.

Jonathan Scott and Mike McGuill had been a couple for a decade when, on Aug. 1, 2006, they awakened and headed to the Pilgrim Monument with their young son and two friends, who'd met them for breakfast. "I said, 'Before our scrambled eggs, we're going to get married, I hope that's OK with you,' " Scott recalled.

His mother, Scott said, was married five times, so he'd grown up with a well-honed skepticism. But as his relationship with McGuill deepened and they adopted their son, marriage appeared to provide indispensable legal protection to them as a couple and as parents, said Scott, who participated in the survey.

"And yet, what happened as we were getting married, it was an experience I'd never had before," said Scott, chief executive of Victory Programs, which helps substance abusers in Boston. "I was so moved at just being in the presence of someone I'd been with 10 years, talking about our love together and our commitment to each other."

At family gatherings, McGuill felt a keen sense of difference when he watched his married brothers and sisters - until that August morning three years ago.

"Now, I have what they have," said McGuill, a veterinarian. "I have a marriage. Getting married, there's nothing revolutionary about it - it's something you do with the person you love."

Stephen Smith can be reached at