Gay Marriage: As California Goes, So Goes the Nation?
On June 16, 2008, the State of California will begin to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For now, at least. In the long, back-and-forth history of gay marriage in California law, the pendulum has swung back to the side of supporters of same-sex nuptials. On May 15th the state Supreme Court struck down a 1977 law and a voter proposition from 2000 defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. As this issue has always been highly politicized, it is interesting to note that six of the seven justices on the California Supreme Court are Republicans. One of the justices compared the 1977 law to earlier legislation banning inter-racial marriages. California was a trendsetter in repealing that ban; it took the U.S. Supreme Court almost another twenty years to get there.
An estimated 100,000 Californians and another 68,000 same-sex couples from other states are expected to make use of the new opportunity to be wed. They had better hurry, though, because there is likely to be another voter proposition on the November ballot attempting to reinstate the ban on gay marriage. The expected influx of visitors couldn't come at a better time for cash-strapped California. Even Governor Schwarzenegger, who has vetoed two bills to legalize gay marriage, is promoting gay-marriage-tourism, due to the anticipated $684 million it will bring over the next three years.
California is not the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage; Massachusetts did so in 2004. The difference is that Massachusetts has certain residency requirements, whereas California does not. So while over 10,000 same-sex couples have wed in Massachusetts, the numbers are dwindling each year, as the initial rush of long-time partners being married has slowed down considerably. An interesting observation has come out of the four years of legalized gay marriage in the Bay State; opponents often claim that permitting same-sex marriages will erode the institution of marriage. During the time span of gay marriage in Massachusetts, the statewide divorce rate has actually declined, and in fact is the lowest in the nation. By contrast, many of the states with constitutional bans on same-sex unions have seen their divorce rates rise in that same period, to include four of the five highest rates of divorce in the U.S.
Other states occupy a middle ground, offering some sort of whole or partial legal recognition for same-sex couples. Vermont, for instance, instituted its civil union law in 2000, which is really the same as marriage under a name designed to mollify the anti-gay marriage crowd. Then-governor, Howard Dean (now chairman of the Democratic National Committee), signed the bill into law behind closed doors. Perhaps in anticipation of his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he did not allow any photographs to be taken of him signing the landmark legislation. New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey recognize civil unions as well; Hawaii, Maine, and Oregon are among the states offering domestic partnerships.
Same Sex Marriage USA
Purple - Gay Marriage Allowed
Blue - Civil Unions Allowed
Green-Unions granting rights similar to marriage
Yellow - Statute bans same-sex marriage
Orange-Constitution bans same-sex marriage
Red-Constitution bans same-sex marriage and other kinds of same-sex unions
The complicated legal landscape also includes New Mexico, Rhode Island, and New York, all of which acknowledge same-sex partnerships from other states and countries, but do not grant any form of civil union or marriage license within their own borders. Adding to the complexity of the legal situation is the fact that the federal government does not accept any form of gay marriage. This means that a couple in a civil union, for example, would file joint state taxes and individual federal returns. Even thornier is the issue of the death of a spouse, because the surviving partner is ineligible to receive social security, and has to pay gift taxes on the inheritance, due to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
Spain Celebration Of Gay Marriage Rights
Gay marriage is not just a hot topic in America, by the way; the Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Belgium, Norway, and South Africa all have legalized same-sex marriage.
Spousal benefits are not the only thing that is more complex in a same-sex marriage. Divorce and child custody present unique challenges. Massachusetts requires that both parties be residents to obtain a divorce, which means that if one of the partners moves out of state, it can be nearly impossible to legally dissolve their union. Those states that do not recognize gay marriage as a legal bond will therefore not grant a divorce to break the bond. Undissolved marriages leave both people open to a whole host of future problems, particularly concerning claims on property and communal assets. As with any divorce, children make the situation even harder. In the case of same-sex couples, the courts have frequently been at a loss on how to handle legal situations without established precedents.
All the legal stuff aside, for many same-sex couples, the chance to formalize their union is very special (especially if they have been waiting for years for the opportunity). Certainly, gay partners seek the rights and protections due to any other married couple (such as health insurance and official parental status for their children), but even more so, they marry for the same reasons as any other couple: they are in love, and want to "make it official". Marriage being the romantic ideal that it is, perhaps it should come as no surprise that lesbians have made up 2/3s of the gay marriages in Massachusetts so far.
With marriage comes a wedding. Same-sex couples are certainly less likely to have big church weddings and, although the Unitarian Church has performed gay marriages since 1996. There are many other options, though, ranging from a brief ceremony at City Hall to an intimate gathering at a home to a huge party at a beautiful inn. Couples who opt for a large wedding have all the usual trimmings: the assembled loved ones, a fancy cake, wedding jewelry, lovely décor, and the registry at Pottery Barn.
Same-sex couples are more likely than a bride and a groom to choose matching wedding bands (presumably because two men or two women will have more similar taste than a man and a woman would). There tends to be more flexibility in the wedding attire with gay couples. For example, you might see two women in matching dresses, a pair of women in different dresses, or even one woman in a gown and her spouse in a suit. As with any wedding, it is all about what suits the degree of formality of the event and the personalities of the individuals.
Marriage is a more fluid institution than people may realize. After all, there was a time in this country when polygamy was legal, women were their husband's property, and there was no divorce. As society changes, so do its customs, even if it takes many years. It will be interesting to see what happens when the gay couples who get married in California return to their home states. Eventually, some couples will start to file claims in federal court for recognition of their rights as a married couple. It is believed that this may be what ultimately causes gay marriage to be acknowledged and offered in other states, and will one day land the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. As California goes, so goes the nation.