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Study Shows Gay Couples Want Legal Rights, Regardless of Marriage

New research from North Carolina State University shows that gay and lesbian couples are forming long-term, committed relationships, even in the absence of the right to marry. However, couples surveyed for the study overwhelmingly said they would get married if they could in order to secure legal rights – such as retirement and healthcare benefits.

“Our study indicates that marriage is both more and less important to gay and lesbian couples in long-term relationships than was perhaps previously understood – more important in terms of the legal rights it conveys, but less important as a symbol of commitment,” says study co-author Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at NC State. “This research underscores the need for legal protections and rights for all couples.”

The study found that, because these gay and lesbian couples could not marry in their state, there was no defining moment demarcating when they became “committed” in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. Instead, their commitment revealed itself over time, with different people having different ideas as to when a relationship became “committed.” Elliott explains that this shows there are multiple ways that couples can form lasting, committed relationships outside the institution of marriage.

“The majority of the couples in the study said they would get married in order to gain legal rights,” Elliott says, “but downplayed the symbolic value of marriage, because they were already in stable, committed relationships.” One respondent in the study said, “What [our relationship] means to us, in our hearts and in our heads, I don’t think it would be any different” if we got married.

However, the same respondent added that getting married would make life easier, explaining, “as it is now, we have to go outside to get medical power of attorney…and so for the legality of things, I would like to marry.”

The study also notes that societal trends continue to transform the meaning of marriage and cohabitation, for straight and gay couples, and calls for additional research to be done to evaluate what commitment and marriage mean for people in all social groups, including heterosexual couples.

The study, “Commitment Without Marriage: Union Formation Among Long-Term Same-Sex Couples,” was co-authored by Elliott, and researchers Corinne Reczek and Debra Umberson of the University of Texas at Austin. The study was published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Issues.

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Note to editors: The study abstract follows.

“Commitment Without Marriage: Union Formation Among Long-Term Same-Sex Couples”

Authors: Sinikka Elliott, North Carolina State University; Corinne Reczek and Debra Umberson, University of Texas at Austin

Published: June 2009, Journal of Family Issues

Abstract: The majority of Americans will marry in their lifetimes, and for many, marriage symbolizes the transition into long-term commitment. However, many Americans cannot legally marry. This article analyzes in-depth interviews with gays and lesbians in long-term partnerships to examine union formation and commitment-making histories. Using a life course perspective that emphasizes historical and biographical contexts, the authors examine how couples conceptualize and form committed relationships despite being denied the right to marry. Although previous studies suggest that commitment ceremonies are a way to form same-sex unions, this study finds that because of their unique social, historical, and biographical relationship to marriage and ceremonies, long-term same-sex couples do not follow normative commitment-making trajectories. Instead, relationships can transition more ambiguously to committed formations without marriage, public ceremony, clear-cut act, or decision. Such an understanding of commitment making outside of marriage has implications for theorizing alternative forms of union making.

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