Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Same Sex Marriage in the United States: Focus on the Facts, by Sean Cahill

reviewed by Vern Bullough

Though the author of this book believes in the importance of same-sex marriage, this is not an advocacy book, but rather a dispassionate overview of the political emergence of the issue in the United States. There are some occasional references to Canada, but developments in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK and elsewhere are not mentioned. Neither is the early discussion of gay marriage in the United States in the 1950s, when articles about the topic appeared in One magazine.

The author, a gay man himself, holds that three 2003 court decisions sparked the most recent phases of the debate. The opening salvo in the battle came from Canada when Ontario’s Court of Appeal on 10 June 2003 ruled that same-sex couples should have the right to marry under the nation’s Charter of Rights. This was followed by the US Supreme Court ruling on 26 June 2003 stating that the anti-sodomy laws violated the constitutional right to privacy. Marking the formal opening of the struggle was the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on 18 November 2004, holding that the denial of marriage to same-sex couples violated that state’s constitutional guarantees to equal protection and due process.

The battle had actually started earlier with a decision in 1993 by the Supreme Court of Hawaii, ruling that it was impermissible gender discrimination under the state constitution to deny three lesbian and gay couples the right to obtain a marriage licence. In fact it was this decision that led to the mobilisation of the anti-gay forces resulting, in 1996, in legislation by the US Congress, the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage in federal law as a legal union between one man and one woman. Though its constitutionality has not been ruled upon, the act is being used to prevent gay couples from entering the US, and it serves as the foundation for the right of states to refuse to recognise marriages performed in Massachusetts in 2004 (or in California or elsewhere).

This was followed in 2003 by attempts to amend the US Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriages, although as of this writing, such an amendment has not yet received congressional endorsement.

The author then proceeds to list and discuss policies that give preferential treatment to married couples, emphasising the very real disadvantage that gay and lesbian couples have to face in their partnership. These unequal treatments are particularly noticeable in old age and in times of crisis such as illness and death.

Gay marriage, however, is only the newest issue to receive public attention since the forces opposing same-sex marriages are those also involved in the anti-abortion movement, the abstinence-in-education programme, the anti-evolution movement, anti-pornography and anti-homosexual-rights movement, and dozens of other similar movements. In a sense, these opponents feel almost reborn because they see same-sex marriage as the key issue with which they can win their battle for what they regard as the pro-family cause. This includes a disparate collection of followers, including anti-feminists, and anti-pornography and anti-sex organisations, and also includes groups with names such as Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Traditional Values Coalition and, in the recent US election, the Republican Party of George Bush.

Much of the book is devoted to refuting the arguments of these groups and offering commonsense answers to the erroneous and misleading statements of the right-wing evangelical family groups. Contradictions are pointed out, including the cost to taxpayers of the unequal treatment of gays and lesbians under social security and the greater tax liability for gays and lesbians. Interestingly, an increasing number of states have passed laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity at the same time as this battle over same-sex marriage is taking place, which only emphasises the schizophrenic nature of American politics on this issue. For example, a recent poll, despite all the rhetoric about gay marriage, found that Americans did not rate a constitutional amendment banning such marriages a high priority. In a February 2004 poll by the Pew Research Center only 22 per cent of Americans considered passing such an amendment a top priority and, out of 22 issues listed, it ranked 21st in importance.

Cahill is positive that same-sex marriages will win out in one form or another, and he uses the similarity of opposition to interracial marriage as a possible example. Many states had laws against interracial marriage well into the twentieth century, and there was even a proposed constitutional amendment banning it, which never succeeded. Still, as recently as 1967, an interracial couple in Virginia were sentenced to one year in jail for violating the state law about black-white marriages. When the US Supreme Court eventually got around to deciding that Virginia’s law, and the law in 15 other states, was unconstitutional, 72 per cent of the population still opposed interracial marriage, and 48 per cent believed it should be a crime.

Attitudes have since changed, and Cahill believes that similar changes can be brought about in terms of same-sex marriages, but it will not be easy.

There is a helpful bibliography and a good index. I highly recommend the book.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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