On the grand, historical level of accounting, this past weekend’s victory for same-sex marriage advocates represents a victory for equality and for civil rights. The wavering senators who provided the last votes for the legislation put their decisions in moral terms: they wanted to “do the right thing.” They doubled the number of Americans who live in a place where same-sex couples can wed and provided safe-guards for religious institutions that want to stand outside this shift. And because New York is such a big state, the vote made it that much more likely that other states will follow suit.
But what does it mean on the practical level? What happens now?
New York is not the first place in the world, not even the first place in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. The Netherlands first adopted the idea in 2001, a decade ago. Massachusetts began performing same-sex marriages in 2004, after a court decided that to deny same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C. followed suit.
Same-sex marriage followed a similar pattern in all of these places. In the year following legalization, the number of same-sex marriages surged as pent-up demand and delayed weddings were finally made real. In D.C., the first year of legal same-sex marriage saw as many requests for marriage licenses from same-sex couples as from straight couples. But in each of these places, the number of marriages dropped off dramatically in the next year: In Britain, half as many same-sex couples were married in 2007 as in 2006, the first year same-sex marriage was legal in that country. And so, wedding curmudgeons, if you get invited to an extra helping of weddings in the next year, fear not: By 2012 or so, the excitement will have died down.
In the longer term, New York could see an increase in the number of same-sex couples identifying themselves openly. In the years following the legalization of same-sex marriage, Massachusetts saw an increase of same-sex couples, wed or unwed, across the state. It’s not clear that more couples moved to the state because it had allowed same-sex marriage, or if couples already living there felt more comfortable being open about their relationships.
Some gay rights advocates are worried that with the normalization of same-sex marriage, other hard-won rights might be lost. The gay community has fought hard for the acceptance of relationships outside of what has been considered “normative,” and they argue that marriage for those who want it doesn’t obviate the need for greater flexibility, both culturally and legally, on how people build relationships. In The New York Times last week, Katherine Franke of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, worried that as in other states that have adopted same-sex marriage, rights for domestic partners (gay or straight) in New York will disappear. It is worth remembering that many conservatives — David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan — were instrumental in forwarding the case for same-sex marriage. They were less interested in giving respect and legitimacy to people across the full spectrum of possible relationships than in sussing out, from any two people who’ve been together for long enough, the answer to the question: “So, when’s the wedding?”