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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 We are sorry to inform you that your marriage is no longer valid.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.

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