Assuming the new report I discussed earlier today is correct that relatively few gay couples are getting married where it’s allowed, why is that the case?
The report itself suggests a couple of possible directions marriage rates among gay couples might go in the future:
Of course our experience with same-sex marriage is in its infancy. The small fraction of gays and lesbians who have currently married may change as cultural mores and expectations in the gay community shift, as some commentators have predicted. Or as others have suggested, once the novelty wears off, same-sex marriage may prove a decreasingly popular personal choice in the gay and lesbian community.
Of these two directions - - an increasing demand as marriage culture takes hold in gay communities or a continued low (or falling) demand as the excitement of having a new right subsides - - which seems more likely?
The answer, I think, depends on why we think marriage rates among gays might initially be low. Every gay person on this planet right now has lived almost her whole life without the prospect of ever marrying the person she loves. Most gay people in most parts of the world probably still think the prospects for this are very dim where they live, despite what’s happened in Europe, Canada, and Massachusetts. Relationships have been started, plans have been made, worldviews and political ideologies have been formed, based on the absence of marriage as an option. Suddenly, for a few people in a few isolated jurisdictions, marriage is now a possibility for the first time in their lives. While some gay couples can be expected to jump the broom right away, it's not surprising that many others will need more time to assess this new possibility.
This is so for several reasons. First, the idea of marriage is still novel in gay culture and among gay individuals. As the report suggests, "novelty" can produce excitement – but it can also produce fear, specifically fear of the unknown. Britney Spears aside, I doubt many people get married for the novelty of it. Marriage is a huge legal and social commitment. There's less experience with marriage in gay communities, and thus more uncertainty about what it means in practical terms. People who have never even imagined it would be a prospect in their lives will be understandably hesitant.
Second, without the social encouragement and support that marriage provides for relationship formation, there are probably relatively fewer long-term and stable gay couples to begin with, and thus relatively fewer couples who would immediately demand marriages. Those couples secure enough and invested enough in their relationships can start taking advantage of the option right away, if that’s what they want, and they're likely to be the first couples to get married. But for other couples, the availability of marriage means staying the course or embarking on a new one. As new relationships are formed under a regime of marriage, these couples will eventually reach the point where someone pops the question, “Will you marry me?” All of this suggests there will be an adjustment period of some duration while more marriage-inclined couples form and while marriage becomes a comfortable and normatively appealing option to them.
Third, reinforcing the fear of the unknown is the fact that many gay people have actually constructed an oppositional identity for themselves partly based on their exclusion from marriage. Excluded from marriage, they have made a virtue of necessity: "You won't let us marry? We don't want to get married anyway." This oppositional identity takes many forms in the writings of queer theorists and in the things even ordinary gay people can be heard to say when the subject of marriage arises. One hears expressions of this oppositional identity like, "We don't need marriage with all its patriarchal and heterosexist trappings." Or: "I don't want to mimic straight people." Or: "Marriage is such a mess, with 50% divorce rates, why would we want to join it?" Or: "Just give us the benefits of marriage and you can keep the word." There's a stubborn pride, born of necessity, in being on the outside of a group that won't let you in. Some people will retain this oppositional identity no matter how much time passes. But for others, primarily those younger people whose identities are formed in an environment where marriage is an option, oppositional identity of this sort should fade. Mainstreaming effects like this are what many queer theorists fear about the coming of gay marriage.
I doubt that marriage rates among gays will ever equal marriage rates among heterosexuals, primarily because gay couples will be less likely to raise children. Even after marriage culture settles in, straight couples will be most likely to get married, followed by lesbian couples (who are more likely to raise children than gay males), followed by gay-male couples. But a disparity in marriage rates among heterosexual and homosexual couples is not an argument in itself against recognizing same-sex marriages.
Whether there’s a rising or continued low demand for gay marriage over time does not necessarily answer the question whether same-sex marriages should be recognized. A rising demand for gay marriages that are causing harm to marriage would be terrible. A low demand for gay marriages that are at least helping the few couples who want it, without hurting marriage itself, would be fine.
Whatever our views of gay marriage, we should not be surprised to find gay couples and communities taking things slowly.