At 27, Izzy Legaux is one year past the average marrying age in the U.S. At 34, Izzy's partner Charlene beats it by eight years. Still, last Tuesday, when the Legauxs went to the county administration building to enter into a same-sex marriage, “they told us… we were the youngest couple they had seen so far,” Izzy remarked.
True, anyone watching media coverage of last week's marriages, legal for the first time in California, probably made one rather superficial observation: The folks getting married were, for the most part, longer in the tooth than your average heterosexual couple who, according to U.S. census data, gets hitched at around age 26.
While there's not yet any comprehensive demographic profile of same-sex unions in the U.S., Statistics Canada (kind of like our Census Bureau), reported that in 2003, the year British Columbia started allowing same-sex marriages, the average age of someone entering into a same-sex union was around 43, 14 years older than British Columbia's average opposite-sex marrying age of 29.
It's easy to drum up theories about the age disparity: Younger people, gay or straight, are, in general, disillusioned with marriage because so many of them are children of divorce; young gay men are more promiscuous and less willing to settle down in a relationship (research on rising HIV rates confirms this); gay, lesbian and transgender youth are coming out earlier and into a more accepting environment than their older counterparts who may have felt more pressure to embrace heterosexual cultural norms.
(Though, young people are gay-marriage-opponents' biggest threat, said Dale Kelly Bankhead, campaign manager for the same-sex-marriage advocacy organization Equality for All. “One of the things we've found in virtually every poll out there is that the younger the person is, the more likely they are to support marriage equality, and that's gay or straight.”)
As for the age disparity, there's a simple, obvious explanation: “You have all these people making up for lost time,” said Esther Rothblum, a professor in the women's studies department at San Diego State University.
Bob Lehman and his partner, who are both 43 and who've been together for 15 years, got married Tuesday.
“The older couples were biting at the bit to get married because who knows what's going to happen in November?” he said, referring to the initiative that seeks to amend the California Constitution's definition of marriage. “Will we still be able to get married at that point? Those of us who've been together longer wanted to get married right away for that reason. This first day was about history.”
Rothblum taught at the University of Vermont before coming to SDSU and was there when the state became the first in the U.S. to allow civil unions. Initially, she said, it was the older couples who opted to make their relationship official. Then, over time, things evened out.
“That's when you start seeing younger people getting into these relationships legally, when they become part of the culture,” she said.
But what does “part of the culture” mean? Under heterosexual culture's watch, marriage hasn't fared too well: While the divorce rate isn't nearly as high as it was in 1981 (when it hit its peak), one of every 10 adults in the U.S. has been in a marriage that ended in divorce and only about half of all married couples make it to their 15-year anniversary. Then there's the question of why people get married in the first place. For a lot of young adults, family, religious and social pressures are what drives them to the altar. Marriage looms large over relationships—something Pamela Lannutti, a communications professor at Boston College, found when she interviewed nearly 300 members of the LGBT community shortly before the Massachusetts law allowing same-sex marriage took effect in 2004.
Respondents to Lannutti's survey described the benefits marriage holds for a relationship (legal benefits, the relationship would be regarded by others, and by extension, the couple, as more legitimate) but also the complexities it creates. Some respondents told Lannutti that they suddenly found themselves idealizing a perfect mate, something they'd not done before; others told Lannutti that a person's willingness (or unwillingness) to get married became a way to test compatibility.
If becoming part of the marrying crowd presents challenges for the LGBT community, Raymond Portillos-Leon isn't feeling it. Last Friday afternoon, Portillos-Leon and his friend Matt Olds sat at a table near an open-air window at Urban Mo's in Hillcrest.
“I'm 21 years old,” Portillos-Leon said. “I don't see marriage in the near future. You know, it's just nice to know that, finally, I have the full rights of a normal person—I'm not a second-class citizen.”
People in his social circles “are ecstatic,” he said. “People are having house parties just because of the fact that we can go get married. … A bunch of us are actually going to go down and get marriage certificates, but we're not going to get them signed—we just want to have marriage certificates in case the proposition [banning same-sex marriage] passes.
Then we'll have a historical document: Like, look at this time; we could have gotten married. So, we're all jazzed about it.”
He said he's talked to friends who don't want to get into the “cookie-cutter” institution of marriage. “That's the way they look at it. The way I look at it is, everyone should be equal.”
Olds, who's 24, said he can see himself getting married if the court ruling sticks. “If I find the right person. If not, I'm OK with it, but if it's legal, I would definitely like to exercise that right.”
While Rothblum, the SDSU professor, said she supports marriage rights for gay couples, she's opted not to marry her long-time partner and has no plans to enter into any sort of legal union.
“I grew up in that generation, sort of the second wave of feminism, where marriage was not something I ever really wanted,” she said.
With all the media attention focused on couples who choose to get married, what about the couples who don't believe in marriage, Rothblum pointed out.
“I think that there are sort-of two types of same-sex couples,” she said, “those who feel that marriage is what heterosexuals have and that's what we want, but then there's also the ones that say it's a heterosexual institution: Why should we copy heterosexuals? We want to have a more non-traditional or radical form of our relationship.”
Lea Caughlan, co-owner of The Rubber Rose, a sexuality boutique and counterculture hub in North Park, feels the pull of being a champion for equal rights, but, likewise, doesn't want to be part of what she describes as “one of the most significant and longest-standing forms of patriarchy that we have in our society.”
She wants to see more options for people who don't want to participate in the institution of marriage and instead want something founded more on equality.
But despite her views on marriage, “I'm getting married,” Caughlan admitted, then paused and laughed at the irony. She's thinking maybe October.
Carly Delso-Saavedra, who co-owns the Rubber Rose with Caughlan, was in San Francisco over the weekend, marrying her partner. The two had a commitment ceremony exactly 10 years ago and decided to celebrate that anniversary with a wedding.
Caughlan said that one of the reasons she's getting married is because in Massachusetts, same-sex couples are marrying at a slower rate than heterosexual couples, providing fodder for the opposition: See, gay people don't even want to get married. Caughlan wants to marry her biologically female transgender partner in part to help demonstrate a strong desire for equality in California. He'll change his state-recognized gender later. Caughlan mused that maybe then she'll be the person who files the lawsuit to make domestic partnership an option for heterosexual couples. Right now, domestic partnerships for heterosexual couples are permitted only if at least one member of the couple is 62 or older.
“I believe the institution of marriage to be an overly archaic and outdated institution,” Caughlan reiterated. “However, inequality is totally unacceptable in my book. Once we're done arguing whether or not gay people can get married… then we can talk about, like, Wow, marriage is such a patriarchal form of keeping certain people down.”
Other countries provide options for heterosexual couples seeking a legal union. In France, for instance, a couple can choose to enter into a “civil pact.” First allowed in 1999 to provide same-sex couples with the same rights as opposite-sex couples (same-sex marriages aren't recognized in France), civil pacts have become increasingly popular with heterosexual couples. Research shows that couples who opt for a civil pact over marriage tend to be better-educated and less religious than their married counterparts. Statistics show, too, that the divorce rate among France's civil-pact couples is significantly lower than the divorce rate for married couples—one in 10 versus one in three, respectively.
The U.S. has no federally recognized form of civil union for same-sex or opposite-sex couples, and only nine states recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions. In California, domestic partnerships were available to same-sex couples prior to the May Supreme Court ruling and, as noted above, are permitted for heterosexual couples only if at least one member of the couple is 62 or older. What will happen to California's domestic-partnership law now that marriage is allowed for all couples isn't clear. There's virtually no difference between the two when it comes to state-granted rights and benefits, but because the federal government doesn't recognize any kind of same-sex union, those couples aren't entitled to 1,138 federal “rights and responsibilities” that are conferred to married heterosexual couples, like tax breaks for couples with children and the right to receive a deceased spouse's social security benefits.
It's not likely anything will change at the federal level anytime soon; currently, there are more states that forbid any kind of same-sex union than allow it. But perhaps folks who think that's OK should take a look at the growing body of research on same-sex unions. Rothblum, for instance, has compared levels of intimacy and compatibility between same-sex couples in legal unions, same-sex couples not in a legal union and heterosexual married couples. She's found that same-sex couples, regardless of legal status, tend to be happier in their relationship than their heterosexual counterparts. Not only that, but same-sex couples are also more likely to share equally when it comes to housework and finances.
“When you have two women in a relationship or two men, they sort of understand each other culturally,” Rothblum said. “When you have a man and a women who are coming from two different planets, trying to make a life together, it's amazing, really. I'm impressed by heterosexual couples who manage to bridge that cultural gap.”
David Rolland and Justin Roberts assisted in reporting this story.