Making the Case for Gay Marriage []

The chief of coastal Oregon’s Coquille Indian tribe must, I think, be a good man. His name is Ken Tanner, and when a tribes-woman asked for a marriage license to marry her girlfriend on Coquille land in 2008 – Oregon’s a no on gay marriage, but tribal sovereignty is another kettle of salmon – he moved things forward. Today the Coquille tribe (pronounced “ko-kwel’’) is one of a little more than a half dozen pioneering US entities (and the only Native American tribe) to grant marriage licenses to gay couples.

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to do so. Since then, we’ve been joined by the District of Columbia, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and, quite the recent bombshell, New York. (California is the asterisk: yes for six months in 2008, then no.) So why did the Coquilles take a stand? “Native Americans, more than anyone, know about discrimination,’’ Tanner explained. “Our directive is to provide recognition and respect to all members of our tribe.’’

Recognition and respect: For gays and lesbians, it’s accelerating. More states, including Maine, are taking a look at signing on to gay marriage. And this year, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans (53 percent, according to Gallup) believe same-sex marriage should be legally equal to traditional marriages.

“The river of history has rounded a bend,’’ as the Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch says in “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America’’ (Times, 2004). It’s one of the movement’s trailblazing polemics, but since then more research has kicked in. Thus the wonky but fascinating “When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage’’ (New York University, 2009) by M.V. Lee Badgett, a University of Massachusetts Amherst economics professor and research director of UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy.

Badgett gets her data, mostly, from Europe. We might think we’re wicked progressive here in the Bay State, but Denmark became the first nation to sanction same-sex unions in 1989. Chalk it up to “frisind,’’ a Danish word that means “broad-mindedness, tolerance and social responsibility in securing real equal opportunity for everyone.’’ Ten countries are now in the gay marriage column: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden.

So what does Badgett dig up? The research suggests that legal relationships among gay men in Europe appear to encourage monogamy, resulting in lower rates of HIV and syphilis. Gay couples who marry generally report a feeling of inclusion, which reduces what Badgett calls “minority stress.’’ Also, the more secular a country or state, the more likely it will pass a gay marriage bill.

Apart from the health benefits of wedlock, the legal gains – family leave, Social Security and survivor benefits, joint filing of federal income taxes – are voluminous. According to a 2004 Congressional Budget Office report, married people have 1,138 statutory provisions in their favor. It’s plain wrong that gay couples who want to marry don’t, and the consequences pervade “Gay Marriage, Real Life: Ten Stories of Love and Family,’’ (Skinner House, Books, 2006) by Michelle Bates Deakin.

Take Anne Magro and Heather Finstuen, both academics living in Oklahoma, moms to twin girls adopted in New Jersey, and plaintiffs in a suit to overturn a state law that won’t recognize adoptions by same-sex parents in other states. When one daughter hears a stump speech by then-candidate George W. Bush condemning gay marriage, she breaks into tears. “If Bush is elected president,’’ she sobs, “are they going to take Mommy out of our family?’’

Which brings to mind another mother, sweet, flinty Judy Sobiesk, whose son is the edgy advice columnist Dan Savage. He and his former partner and now husband, Terry, have a young son, and Savage is also the founder of the It Gets Better video project to help gay teens, plus the author of “The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family’’ (Dutton, 2005). It’s the most personal of the books mentioned here, and by far the funniest (Oh, their snark at the Seattle Wedding Expo!). At one point, Sobiesk gives an impassioned speech to Dan and Terry, who are waffling about getting married (their only choice is Canada, since it’s not legal in Washington, their home state). “It seems crazy to me that your father and I had our relationship blessed legally and by the church and you guys can’t,’’ she says. “You’re being robbed. But you’re robbing yourselves, too, of publicly saying ‘I care about this person as much as I care about myself,’ and having everyone around you applaud that and promise to support you.’’

Applauding and supporting; that’s what history now demands of us. And this goes out to the other 43 states. Or as they say in Coquille: K’wen ‘inish-ha? Have you heard the news?

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at

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