Skip to main content

The strange math of marriage protection

I've been following along with the Federal Court case for marriage equity (Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 3:09-02292, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California). Since it's not on TV or even allowed on Youtube, I've been following along via a live-blogging session here. It's pretty riveting stuff. Here's a snippet of testimony from one of the plaintiffs:
"In 2003 I proposed to Sandy without knowing that all this about gay marriage would happen in California. I wanted to propose because of how much I love her. We live in a hilly part of Berkeley. I took her for a walk. I sat down on a rock with her, took out a ring out and asked if she’d marry me. She said yes, but she said, “how will we do that?” So we had to invent a way to marry. We started figuring out the day, the place, who we’d like to have marry us... That was February 2004 for us."
It all sounds like a pretty normal story about how "I met my wife." It's a personal story about two adults who love one another. Reading the testimony, it's hard to see why the state should be interested in dissolving her marriage. After all, one of the plaintiffs, Kristen Perry, is a citizen, mother and executive director of First 5 California, a child advocacy group. Hardly a threat to society. But then:
"A few months later there was the California Court ruled that our marriage was invalid...The city of SF sent a form letter with our names at the top. We are sorry to inform you that your marriage is no longer valid. We’d like to return your marriage fee to you or give it to a charity."
No matter how you feel about homosexuality, or any other aspect of the private lives of two consenting adults, you have to look at this for what it is: the state granted two people the right to marry, and then stripped that right away. That's pretty messed up. If the state of California took away my right to marry I'd be in court, too! As Kristin's former wife says, "I’m a plaintiff this case because I would like to get married and to marry the person that I choose and that’s Kris Perry and California law prevents that." If you're married, just imagine what it would be like if it were against the law to marry who you love.

Recall that the stated goal of Prop 8 and it's supporters was to protect marriage. Let me take the "marriage protection" folks at their word and ask: is banning gay marriage an effective way of achieving their goals?

A conservative estimate of the number of gay people in the US is 8 million, compared to the U.S. population of roughly 300 million. So gay people make up about 3% of the population. Let's suppose that every one of those people, gay and straight, wants to get married (not all do, but this is just a quick thought experiment). That means for every 100 straight couples there are 3 gay couples. The divorce rate among straight couples is about 50%, so there will be 50 divorces (failed marriages, broken homes, etc) for every 3 gay marriages.

So if we assume that a successful gay marriage and a divorce are equally detrimental to the "institution of marriage," then attacking gay marriage is a horribly ineffective way of saving marriages. To put it another way, it is about 17 times more effective to stop divorces than it is to stop gay marriages.

Of course all of this rests on the questionable assumption that gay marriage is in any way detrimental to straight marriages, which I just can't understand. After all, somehow my wife and I have managed to avoid any threats to our marriage despite gay people marrying all around us while living in California and Hawaii.

The truth is that people aren't really interested in saving marriage, and their dishonesty just highlights how little water their arguments hold. In fact, as far as I can tell, the gist of the anti-gay-marriage arguments basically boils down to, "Ew." I wonder if the Prop 8 defense team will prove this wrong during their testimony and provide solid reasoning for why some citizens should be able to marry while others cannot.


Marshall said…
In fact, it turns out that states which allow gay marriage have lower rates of hetero divorce, while states with aggressive bans on gay marriage have higher rates of divorce. So how's that "protecting marriage" working out, eh?

(the credit for this insight goes, as usual, to Nate Silver: )
Amy Pousson said…
Long have I tried to articulate that very same argument, but for me it usually just winds up me saying, "It's not fair...if they love each other, let them get married." Well put, John.
mama mia said…
Well, the editorial cartoon says it all, it is nothing more than discrimination, plain and simple. Thanks for the link to the court case.
blissful_e said…
Here in Australia, we've noticed that most people refer to their 'partner.' So you really have no idea whether they are married, homo- or heterosexual. It just means you're in a committed relationship, however you define it.

My theory of how much the government intervenes is based on a tax regime continuum. In America, taxes can be "married filing jointly" so the legal definition of "marriage" is important for the tax breaks it affords. Whatever assets Ben and I might own separately, they are joined (for tax and death benefits, among other things) in the eyes of the law.

In the UK, each person files their own taxes, but bank accounts can be completely joined, so my tax return has a huge amount to do with what Ben puts on his. I won't go into the details because it's boring and complicated, though not as complicated as American taxes.

In Australia, both taxes and bank accounts are separate (even though Ben and I share a bank account, my login and settings are completely separate from his, and there are things that I can view that he can't and vice versa). My taxes only involve what is specifically in my name.

So it goes with my theory - in America it's critical how "marriage" is defined because the monetary system is built around it. In the UK, it's important but can be worked around. In Australia it's almost a non-issue except with regards to purely family matters such as child custody.

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…