The triumph of family diversity
Without doubt, liberal observers of American family life are delighted with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. I am one of them. In 1996 I was one of five sociologists to sign a friend of the court brief in Baehr v. Miike, a case in which three same-sex couples sued the state of Hawaii for the right to marry. The brief, which supported the couples’ position, was coordinated by Lawrence Wu, now at New York University. I soon moved on, but Wu and many other social scientists and historians took up the issue and have seen it through to its conclusion. The transformation of American law and public opinion in two decades is remarkable.
Yet most liberals would avoid the ringing rhetoric with which Justice Anthony Kennedy extoled “the transcendent importance of marriage” in writing the majority’s opinion in Obergefell. I don’t know many college professors who would be comfortable telling their students, as Kennedy told the nation, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” Instead, liberals are likely to celebrate the ruling not because it may strengthen marriage but rather because it establishes that families come in diverse forms and deserve equal rights and protections. In this sense, Obergefell represents the triumph of the idea of family diversity.
This irony of this triumph has not been lost on social conservatives. Ross Douthat wrote in his column in The New York Times:
Millennials may agree with Kennedy’s ruling, but they’re making his view of marriage as “a keystone of the nation’s social order” look antique. In their views and (lack of) vows, they’re taking a more relaxed perspective, in which wedlock is malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids — or not.
Like Douthat, many of the defenders of heterosexual marriage over the past decade are wary of same-sex marriage. Their claim is that legitimizing alternatives to traditional marriage will serve to weaken marriage as an institution: diversity equals decline.
Will Obergefell weaken marriage? It is certainly possible that as alternative paths to adulthood are legitimized, the role of marriage in the American family system may lessen. In fact, that has already happened. It is simply less necessary to be married today, be it with a same- or different-sex partner, than it was for different-sex partners in the past. Attitudes toward having children outside of marriage are less negative than they used to be. Rates of marriage have declined; cohabitation has increased. The critics of the Court’s decision argue essentially that the greater the number of acceptable ways of forming a partnership and having children, the less normative any one route is. Obergefell opens up another one.
And yet the opposite case – that Obergefell will strengthen marriage – can be made. On the level of social norms – on what’s best for families, on what kind of family is preferred – marriage remains broadly popular among the American population, up and down the social class ladder and across racial and ethnic groups. The legitimation of alternatives – what I have called the deinstitutionalization of marriage – does not seem to have altered Americans’ preference for marriage. The announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision and the attention paid to it in the media have sent a message to the American public: Marriage still matters. We shouldn’t underestimate the influence of this message, which was issued by the most respected governmental institution in the nation. The public debate about the wisdom of Obergefell demonstrates how much Americans continue to value marriage. In contrast, the French or Swedish public would not care as much whether a court decision weakened or strengthened marriage.
Moreover gay men and lesbians in states that allowed same-sex marriage before Obergefell have been voting with their feet in favor of marriage. Demographer Gary Gates estimates that 34 percent of all same-sex couples in the Northeast – the region where same-sex marriage has been legal the longest – were married in 2013. That’s a surprisingly large percentage, given the relatively short period during which more than a handful of states permitted same-sex marriages. To be sure, the high current levels of same-sex marriage may decline as the backlog of committed couples in long-standing relationships decreases. Young gay men and lesbians in new partnerships are unlikely to marry with such fervor.
Nevertheless, some same-sex marriage advocates have joined with long-time proponents of heterosexual marriage to argue that we are at a “marriage opportunity” moment in which its advantages can be made plain to all. Liberals can now join conservatives in endorsing the benefits of marriage, they argue, without abandoning their commitment to inclusion and equality. “In short,” they write, “for the first time in decades, Americans have an opportunity to think about marriage in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart.”
So the net effect of the legalization of same-sex marriage is hard to predict. It is by no means clear that it will weaken the institution of marriage. Meanwhile this highly-valued and privileged status has been opened to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation – a major social advance.
Andrew J. Cherlin a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author most recently of Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Follow him at @AndrewCherlin.