Why Marriage Matters to Gay Couples

Only a few states grant gay couples the right to marry and in states that do so many gay couples have rushed to exercise that right.  My partner of sixteen years and I tied the knot soon after marriage became legal here in D.C. in 2010.  Early in our relationship it felt risky for me to claim him as my “partner.”  Now I’m trying to get comfortable with calling him “husband.”

While not permitting marriage, a few states have conferred upon gay couples the right join in a legal civil union.  In many cases civil unions grant all the rights of marriage—except one: the right to call it marriage.

According to a newly released study of gay couples by the Williams Institute, the distinction between civil unions and marriage matters a great deal.  The study found that gay couples were significantly more likely to formalize their relationships in states where they are allowed to marry than in states where only civil unions or legal domestic partnerships are permitted. 

To be sure, securing legal protections matters for many gay couples, especially those with children.  But the words “domestic partner” or “civil union” don’t convey what is at the heart of these relationships—love.  Ask a heterosexual couple why they are getting married and they are more likely to tell you about their mutual love than about the right to file a joint tax return. 

While I stood on line at the marriage bureau at D.C. Superior Court to apply for a marriage license, an African-American lesbian couple was just ahead of me.  They were giddy with excitement.  It was obvious to me that they were deeply in love.  For them it was much, much more than a legal arrangement. 

Historically gay men and lesbians have had to conceal themselves and their relationships.  Their relationships have been denigrated or viewed in strictly sexual terms or perceived as less valid, loving, and meaningful.  For decades the gay community has yearned and struggled for equality.  Legal equivalents of marriage a significant leap forward; but marriage grants not just rights but respect. Gay couples deserve both.