The evidence on same-sex marriage and families: Gay men in red states

Matt Barnum Co-Founder, The Purple Elephant
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With more and more states – UtahNew MexicoOhio, and most recently Oklahoma – moving towards recognition of same-sex marriage, increasingly the question isn’t whether gay marriage will become legally recognized, but what effect its wide acceptance to will have on society. As these four states – all red or purple – achieve greater gay equality, this is a question social conservatives need to take seriously.

To proponents, like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch, same-sex marriage will not harm, but actually promote family values by spreading them to gay families. But many beg to differ, arguing that same-sex marriage will undermine traditional marriage, and will not do anything to ‘domesticate’ or enforce traditional values on gay men. In their widely cited essay (turned book) Ryan Anderson, Shirif Girgis, and Robert George take this view, pointing to the large number of partners (according to a study from the 1990s) that gay and bisexual men have relative to their straight counterparts.

So which view is right? We don’t know for sure yet, of course, but an innovative new study by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz chalks up a point for the Sullivan-Rauch theory.

The research found unsurprisingly that there are more openly gay people in more gay-tolerant states, but that from state to state there are equal numbers of men who are predominantly attracted to men. This provides even further evidence for the scientific consensus that it is next to impossible to change one’s sexuality from gay to straight.

A social conservative might respond: well, sure people can’t fully get rid of their urges, but perhaps in the red states men with same-sex attractions are able to stifle them and have successful marriages with women or choose to remain celibate. But the evidence contradicts this hypothesis as well. Although it does appear to be true that gay men in states less accepting of homosexuality are more likely to marry women, it’s also true that Google searches by women questioning their husbands’ sexuality occur significantly more often in the most socially conservative states. In other words, in such red states gay men often marry women who eventually discover their husbands’ real, but concealed, sexuality. Presumably many such marriages end in divorce and despair.

Perhaps most concerning to social conservatives – and most supportive of the Sullivan-Rauch hypothesis – is the rate of gay male ‘casual encounters’ (i.e. one-off sexual hook-up) ads on Craigslist. If it were true that gay men are inherently promiscuous, one would imagine that states with higher rates and concentrations of openly gay men would also have higher (or at least equal) rates of ‘casual encounters.’ Not so – turns out that there is a correlation between less tolerance for gays and more uses of the ‘casual encounters.’ The states with some of the highest rates are Kentucky, Louisiana and Alabama.

In fact this is not all that surprising: anonymous sex is much easier to hide than a long-term relationship. Is it any shock that when some demand that people hide their sexuality (or else face ridicule, demands to change, violence, or legal sanction) that people channel their sexuality in ways that are easy to hide and not conducive to long-term commitments? Insofar as it is exists, gay promiscuity is caused at least in part by intolerance of homosexuality.

Supporters of traditional values need to answer this question: what sort of life do they expect gay people to lead? After all, we cannot change our sexuality. The options, then, are clear: have a committed relationship with someone of the same sex; attempt to have a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex; have sex, but avoid commitment, with someone of the same sex; or remain celibate.

As a matter of social pressure, the first option is off the table for many gay people in deeply red states. Social conservatives might wish that gays remain celibate, but according to Stephens-Davidowitz’s research that’s not always happening, nor intuitively is it a life that most people will choose.

To be clear, this is one study with results that can be interpreted in different ways. As same-sex marriage becomes more common, it will be necessary to continue to look at its cultural effects. But in the end  opponents of gay rights may realize – and the social science may prove – that what they’ve been supporting has undermined rather than promoted family values.