The Wrong Reasons for Same-Sex Marriage
By JAYE CEE WHITEHEAD
Published: May 15, 2011
Forest Grove, Ore.
IN a letter to the New York State Legislature last month, top business executives endorsed same-sex marriage on the ground that “attracting talent is key to our state’s economic future.” The signers — among them the banker Lloyd C. Blankfein, the financier Ronald O. Perelman, the real estate developer Jerry I. Speyer and the publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman — declared that legalizing gay unions would “help maintain our competitive advantage in attracting the best and brightest people the world has to offer.”
The letter was only the latest example of a trend toward promoting marriage equality as a boon to businesses and state and local budgets. While these arguments are appealing at first glance, and may be politically effective in the short run, they ultimately hurt the broader struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with the economic case for same-sex marriage. States and cities are, as the New York executives pointed out, competing to attract talent in a globally competitive labor market. The wedding industry benefits, of course, when more couples are allowed to marry. And marriage equality is associated with revenue gains from sales taxes and license fees. Backers of gay marriage speak openly of the gains from “marriage tourism” in states that have legalized same-sex marriage.
The amount of money involved is not pocket change: the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, puts the economic gain in Massachusetts alone at $111 million in the five years since same-sex marriage was legalized there. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states would yield $1 billion in annual revenue over a 10-year period.
Those making these economic arguments probably have the best of intentions. After all, why can’t gays and lesbians have full equality, while also saving the state money and bolstering local economies? Aren’t civil rights narratives consistent with the economic case for same-sex marriage? Shouldn’t supporters use all possible arguments in the hopes that at least one will finally stick?
And yet supporting marriage on economic grounds dehumanizes same-sex couples by conflating civil rights with economic perks. Americans should be offended when the value of gays and lesbians is reduced to their buying power as consumers or their human and creative capital as workers.
Why can’t same-sex couples have access to the same rights and protections as their straight neighbors simply because they are citizens? How would we respond if the right to interracial marriage were based on the prospects that these relationships made good business sense or added to the state budget? While economic arguments were certainly advanced during the struggle for African-American civil rights — in the late 1950s, Atlanta’s business-oriented mayor, William B. Hartsfield, promoted his city as being “too busy to hate” — those rationales are not what we think about when we remember that struggle’s highest ideals.
Worse yet, this narrative neglects the most economically vulnerable gay and lesbian couples and plays into the inaccurate stereotype of same-sex couples (particularly male couples) as being mostly well-educated and affluent.
For strategic purposes, proponents of same-sex marriage often point out — if not in public rallies then in press releases, reports and legal briefs — that legalizing same-sex marriage is likely to lead to a reduction in state spending on welfare programs.
Means-tested public assistance programs — notably food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which supports low-income parents with dependent children — take a spouse’s income and assets into account in determining eligibility.
As the Williams Institute has noted in papers about the economic benefits of same-sex marriage, expanding marriage rights would send a substantial number of economically struggling couples over the eligibility thresholds, shifting the financial responsibility from the state to the couple without any actual improvement in the couple’s economic well-being. One thing legal marriage does is obligate a couple to provide and care for each other, to ensure that they do not become the responsibility of the state. That isn’t a bad thing if you can afford to do it, but many gay men and lesbians cannot.
Supporters of same-sex marriage ought to acknowledge that marriage is not just a natural expression of human intimacy or a declaration of personal commitment; it is a form of governance. The vast expansion of the government over the past century has embedded marriage into all areas where the state and the individual intersect, from tax obligations to disability benefits to health care decisions to family law. As with any other structure of governance in a democratic society, we ought to think about its participants as citizens rather than consumers.
So if you support same-sex marriage, do so not because it brings in tax revenue and tourism dollars and prevents people from becoming a burden on the state, but because you value gay men and lesbians as citizens who deserve equal access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage.