Gay Couples View Marriage as Legal Protection, Not Commitment Symbol, Study Shows

June 1, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Challenging the idea that marriage is necessary for solidifying relationships, a new study from The University of Texas at Austin reveals same-sex couples in long-term relationships believe marriage is more important in terms of legal rights, but less so as a symbol of commitment.

The findings are detailed in a study titled "Commitment Without Marriage: Union Formation Among Long-Term Same-Sex Couples" in the June issue of the Journal of Family Issues.

Corinne Reczek and Debra Umberson, sociology researchers at the university, and Sinikka Elliott, a researcher at North Carolina State University, found gay and lesbian couples who began their relationships in the mid-1980s and early-1990s, prior to the rising acceptability of gay marriage, do not see marriage or other ceremonies as a symbolic moment of commitment, but as a way of celebrating an already unified relationship.

Based on personal interviews with 20 couples, ages 29 to 72, whose long-term relationships ranged from eight to 27 years, the researchers examined how the participants' experiences shaped their views of marriage and commitment, how they differentiate dating and long-term commitment, and whether the eight couples who had weddings or commitment ceremonies viewed these events as relationship-altering milestones or as celebrations of their preexisting bond.

According to the study, more than half of the respondents deemed commitment ceremonies as unimportant and pointless. However, all except for one of the participants said they would legally marry if they could, indicating the importance of legality for same-sex couples.

"Although trends regarding acceptability of ceremonies have shifted, most of the couples in our sample find at this point in their lives, formal public ceremonies are not practical or substantial enough in legal and social meaning to warrant their participation," Reczek said. "However, if legal marriage were accessible, nearly all couples would participate for the legal, financial and social benefits."

Due to the absence of a traditional wedding, many of the participants could not identify an exact date or event that marked when their relationship began. Frequently, both partners in a couple gave different anniversary dates.

"Because gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry, they follow diverse and sometimes unclear paths toward forming long-term committed relationships," Reczek said. "This research both underscores the need for legal protections and rights for all couples. It also shows the multiple ways couples can form lasting, committed relationships outside of marriage."

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Corinne Reczek, graduate researcher, Department of Sociology, 585-576-7037.

37 Comments to "Gay Couples View Marriage as Legal Protection, Not Commitment Symbol, Study Shows"

1.  mike said on June 1, 2009

My spouse and I have two anniversary dates: when we first met 16 years ago and when we married in Toronto almost six years ago. Being married to us is very important both for legal and symbolic reasons. Marriage conveys a level of commitment that, rightly or wrongly, civil unions or domestic partnerships don't. That's why the word is being fought over. It's terribly important!

2.  Jos said on June 1, 2009

The title to this article is extremely misleading. More than half of merely 20 couples having a certain opinion does not equate to the lot of same-sex couples ascribing to such an opinion. Plus, since very few religious traditions offer same-sex weddings/commitment ceremonies, there really isn't such a thing for same-sex couples. No wonder they don't think the actual wedding/ceremony isn't important. But that does not mean that they don't think marriage is important for both legal protections and a public declaration of their commitment for each other.

3.  Timothy Kincaid said on June 1, 2009

A study of 20 couples in Texas says something about the significance of marriage? Why didn't they ask some of the couples who married in California, Massachusetts or Connecticut whether they thought that marriage was a symbol of commitment. They would have found that while most couples already were committed, they found great meaning in the symbolism and ceremony of marriage. Or perhaps they didn't want to find those conclusions.

4.  Jim said on June 1, 2009

My partner and I have been together for 37 years. We plan to marry as soon as there is federal recognition. We cannot think of a better way to celebrate our commitment. There's a big difference between marriage and a civil union or domestic partnership.

5.  Bill W said on June 1, 2009

My partner and I had a commitment ceremony at home with all of our friends in attendance 27 years ago. It was the best we could do at the time. I would like to see same-sex unions given the same legal rights (and obligations) as "marriage" conveys on male-female couples. I believe it was a mistake for the "gay movement" to push for "marriage." I think "civil union" is what we need -- a legal recognition by the state. Who cares if it's recognized by the church? In many countries people get married by a civil servant and then go to their church for a ceremony. We could do it that way, and everyone would be satisfied.

6.  Pat said on June 2, 2009

I couldn't agree more with the study findings. My partner and I have always thought marriage was a poor way to "prove" our commitment. (Look at the divorce rate.) But when we started a family, marriage looked a whole lot more appealing ... for the legal rights though, not as a symbol that we care for one another.

7.  Kyle said on June 2, 2009

No, I think they are right. Many couples just got used to it over the years that they cannot marry and now just view marriage itself as a way to protect their rights.

8.  mae moore said on June 2, 2009

I beg to differ with the statements that gay couples only view marriage as legal protection or for symbolic reasons. Even if you use the statements from a seemingly small amount of gay couples, or a greater amount, most seem to have been in their relationships for a fair amount of time. More often than not in any kind of seemingly committed relationships, more than just legal protection or symbolism is the true cause for staying or being together. I can't help but believe from what I personally know and have seen from experience that, gay or not, committed couples or partners, at some point, want what the term marriage conveys in all the aspects of it. "Before the whole world, I give myself to you and you give yourself to me, totally in every way and for always." Whether it lasts or not.

9.  thomasALEX said on June 3, 2009

This article is flawed from the beginning. A commitment ceremony is not marriage. Therefore, these couples' views are correct when they say that a commitment ceremony is not a commitment symbol. Now ask these couples if a marriage is a commitment symbol, and their answers will be different.

10.  Patrick said on June 3, 2009

If we take "under God" out of the marriage ceremony, can we please call gay marriage "marriage"?

11.  mike said on June 3, 2009

With all due respect, it's not about churches sanctioning same-gender marriage (though many do, which provides a religious freedom argument). It's about not only the legal aspects of marriage but all the weight of the term. Though same-gender couples in California have the same state rights as their straight counterparts, the court found that marriage conveys the full weight and substance. In their original ruling they found no legitimate reason to withhold marriage from gay couples. Even though Prop 8 was upheld because of amendment versus revision, they made clear that only the word marriage was restricted and that future votes could overturn Prop 8, which will happen. The Defense of Marriage Act is the larger issue. It is vital that it be repealed so that couples that are married, in civil unions or domestic partnerships can receive federal recognition. My understanding is that even though Texas might not recognize your marriage, that the federal government would, and wouldn't that put the state in an awkward position, to say the least?

12.  Laurie said on June 4, 2009

Patrick, if we take "under God" out of the marriage ceremony, then we can't call any marriage "marriage." God is the initiator of marriage in the first place, and He created it for one man and one woman.

"Haven't you read," Jesus replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." - Matthew 19:4-6

13.  Laura Furman said on June 4, 2009

It's interesting to consider the power of a symbol. Human beings get very committed to symbols, don't they? National flags, religious symbols and so on. That's my first reaction to the study. Second, how many heterosexual couples, those who can take for granted legal rights, also view marriage as "symbolic" of their commitment?

14.  Tom Doyal said on June 4, 2009

If I could offer a suggestion to resolve the current impasse over the term "marriage," I would suggest that government get out of the marriage business altogether and leave that to churches as a rite of sacrament. States could then offer to all citizens, gay or straight, civil unions, with all the same rights and obligations currently applicable to "marriage" under the family code. We should not let civil rights turn on a mere matter of semantics.

15.  Anna Escamilla, Ph.D. said on June 4, 2009

I am at year 15 in my committed relationship. The wedding, marriage ceremony, commitment ceremony, etc. are indeed ceremonies to celebrate something. You can do that in many ways. I think it is indeed a wonderful experience to have a choice about ceremony. However, the legality of a committed relationship is a totally different issue. Why is that not a choice for everyone?

16.  Mike Cowan said on June 4, 2009

It is a fundamental right for every person to choose with whom to share their life, love and fortune. It is also true that marriage between a man and woman to give birth to and raise children is the fundamental building block of human society, and this marriage has been recognized by all cultures and religions for thousands of years. It seems we should be able to find an accommodation that recognizes all loving relationships but does not marginalize traditional marriage.

17.  Dan said on June 4, 2009

Marriage is a union presupposing a natural (i.e., the way people are made, male and female) capability for procreation (not to deny the concomitant importance of the interpersonal bond). Thus, marriage is a natural right based on gender difference. As such, it is prior to any civil concerns. Societies become interested in marriage for the sake of protecting and promoting the lives of children (future citizens). The state hasn't, and shouldn't have, a role in interpersonal relationships simply because the parties want to live together. Many in this society have lost sight of the reason for attaching civil benefits to marriage, making the union a battleground for those who seek it for the civil benefits. The situation is further complicated by mislabeling the civil benefits as civil rights and attempting to attach a notion of equality to them. Consequently, much confusion surrounds marriage, presenting an opportunity for research such as this study.

18.  Kathleen Painter said on June 4, 2009

I personally am for real marriage equality and will not settle for civil unions, which are separate, unequal and do not consistently work to protect same-sex couples in the real world.

19.  Yvette Murray, Ph.D. said on June 4, 2009

Give us the same legal rights as heterosexual couples! Marriage is a flawed social institution with patriarchal roots. Genuine commitment to a loved one comes from the heart, not from religious sanctioning.

20.  Barbara Horan said on June 4, 2009

Does anyone realize that for a long time (maybe still now but I am not certain) the Catholic church did not recognize divorce. That did not keep the state from getting into the matter and allowing people who got together to split up even if the church did not recognize they had been split.

In the same way the state has lots of interests about people who are committed to each other. I propose we have two names for when people are "put together." You get married in a church and that involves the church. But if you want the state to recognize your union then you must get a license from the state for the union. It will have all the rights of what is now called marriage by the state, but no one will get married by the state, not even those who have traditionally been able to. They get this union license thing that covers all the legal territory that the state marriage license used to, but it is open to everyone who wants to commit to one other person. Then, all the laws kick in about children, property, taxes and anything else the state has an interest in. That would clear the water over the confusion about the state and church interests.

21.  Aimee Sitzes said on June 5, 2009

This article is very disappointing simply because of how it defines a same-sex couple. The rights issue is about couples that are legally defined as "same-sex," which could be defined by many things, including having the same chromosomes, same genatalia or other factors, depending on the state. Therefore, it includes intersexed and transgendered individuals, as well as gay and lesbian couples. The arguments for the passing of legislation such as Prop 8 seem to be largely based on internal debates on sexual orientation, when in reality it is much more complex. Where are the intersexed individuals in the mass media during these campaigns? Where are the easily accessible sources of information for individuals who would like to educate themselves on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or intersex so they may form an educated opinion? Perhaps articles aimed at educating and eliminating misinformation should be the focus of scholars right now, instead of studying how members of the LGBTQ community view marriage. Separation of church and state, anyone?

22.  Bill W said on June 5, 2009

Where did "under God" in a marriage ceremony come from? Did someone confuse it with the Pledge of Allegiance? God is part of a church ceremony, of course, because that's what Christians believe. That's why I think we need Civil unions, to give same-sex partners equal rights and protections under the law. If we had Civil recognition of same-sex unions, the Church would be off the hook and could go about its business of blessing male-female "weddings."

23.  BillW said on June 6, 2009

I just want the legal rights and protection under the law, the same as a "married" couple. Gay couples ought to lobby for unions which guarantee us equal legal rights. We're lucky we live in Austin where hospitals don't turn away same sex partners or funeral homes don't discriminate, but I am sure that there are plenty of places where that happens. Also, what about inheriting property, bank accounts, insurance, etc. Without equal protection under the law, we have to find ways around these matters, and often a "relative" can step in and challenge, causing considerable trouble.

24.  Ryan said on June 8, 2009

A study of just 20 couples? This is why I don't give credence to "scientific studies". You already know what you want to prove and you just cherry-pick or limit the data to fit it in that box.

While I am steadfastly against marriage for homosexual couples, I hate that there are privileges, such as hospital visitation and health-care coverage, that you can't have. They won't treat you that way at the vet when your pet can be just as much a part of your family as your partner.

25.  Angela Finley, M.Ed. said on June 8, 2009

*Sigh*.. the nature of research with discriminatory agendas. It's biased information like this - where interpretations were made without sufficient reason, that lead to easier "comfort" with maintaining prejudicial attitudes.

There's a lot more that could be said here but I can see that others are already doing that.

I'd like to add however, that I'm dissappointed this was published on my school website, especially when there is so much more worthwhile information to be shared with the UT community.

26.  BillW said on June 8, 2009

Kathleen Painter says that civil unions "... are separate, unequal and do not consistently work to protect same-sex couples in the real world." I would appreciate some statistics on this to back up such a comment. Since civil unions are so new, where allowed, how can you make such a statement? Please state your supporting evidence. Thank you.

27.  Gabriel said on June 10, 2009

This article is biased, skewed and offensive.

I can't believe sociology researchers from the university would generalize the ideals of an entire group based on a mere 20 couples.

I would agree that gays are probably less worried about religious rituals, but that has little to do with commitment.

Gay people want gay marriage for the same reasons straight couples do. That includes legal benefits, but it's mostly a matter of acceptance and recognition that gays are capable of being committed and raising families. The legal aspect of marriage will eventually shift stereotypical views traditionally held by those out of touch with the gay community.

28.  Von Allen said on June 11, 2009

BillW, If civil unions were equal to marriage, would we need them? It's Jim Crow all over. There's no such thing as separate but equal. We need to learn from the past. We are known as innovators but in this area we lag behind.

29.  wayne D. said on June 13, 2009

The study was obviously made with a purposed agenda. The term"Gay marriage " is a oxymoron, since any dictionary and thousands of years of society define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. I cannot marry someone of the same sex in Texas, and neither can a homosexual. That is equal rights. Just because you engage in certain sexual behaviors, does not give you "special rights" to change the definition of marriage. Call it civil unions, or whatever you want, but it is not marriage.

30.  Mike McKinley said on June 15, 2009

A party and a celebration would be lots of fun. But my partner and I of over seven years have bigger fish to fry: that is he is a Mexican citizen. He is here legally, working with a visa, but there is no certainty at this point that after the visa expires, it will be renewed. We have all the powers of attorney, etc, but we could easily have to move to Mexico in a few years. Something we plan to do ultimately, but he wants to finish his career, retire and have a pension and benefits. And I do believe that the government should not be in the "marriage" business and let the religious go that route. A civil union, with all the appertaining rights (including federal immigration rights) is all I care about.

31.  BillW said on June 18, 2009

Yes, Von Allen, we do need civil unions under the auspice that they would be "equal" to marriage in all legal, civil matters. The State could perform Civil Unions which bestow equal rights to couples who chose to go that route.

32.  Jan G. said on June 18, 2009

Marriage has always been about legal status, rights and obligations. At one time, the marriage contract spelled out the obligations and rights of the parties involved (still does in some countries). In much of history, love had little to nothing to do with partner selection. The codification of marriage is a way for society to limit individual choices (age, race, religion) and also to protect the rights of individuals that enter into marriage (property ownership, parental custody, divorce rights). What is considered acceptable is a matter of time and geography.

33.  Richard said on June 20, 2009

I feel marriage would be a huge step for the gay community. For someday, I would like to have the privilege of marrying my partner. When that day comes, it is something I hope the state of Texas recognizes.

34.  Amy W said on June 21, 2009

I agree with Tom Doyal. Leave the term "marriage" to the churches, and call all civil ceremonies something like "civil commitment." That should satisfy everyone: the religious right, other churches that are torn between the biblical definition of marriage and wanting to do the right thing, gays, lesbians and their families. I also agree with all who have pointed out that a "study" of 20 same-sex couples in one area does not constitute a statistically valid study, but does it really matter? Gays and lesbians should have the right to a civil union and should have the right to adopt children.

35.  Steve B said on June 23, 2009

I really don't give a hoot what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home. What I do give a hoot about is when people try to reach into my wallet. Sorry, but you're going to have to earn your own social security and other government entitlements just like I have to.

36.  Richard Lee said on Aug. 17, 2009

To those who argue that same sex marriage should not be legal because gays can't reproduce, I ask: Should older, heterosexual couples who can't reproduce not be allowed to marry? What about younger heterosexual couples who do not want children? The marriage could "expire" after, say, five years. Only fair if reproduction is the real motive to ban same sex marriage.

37.  Callawy said on Dec. 13, 2011

Society will never stop discriminating...They need to worry about all these child abusers and leave people to their lives. If thats how they want to live, let them. Get some business and stay out of theirs.