OutRight: March 2004


by Dale Carpenter

One conservative pundit makes false claims about gay marriage in Scandinavia

Gays have been blamed for just about every bad thing that’s ever happened in human history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of Nazi Germany to earthquakes in California. How was homosexuality responsible for these events? Well, they happened and there were homosexuals around. That was the correlation.

Enter Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, who is making a career out of predicting catastrophe if gay marriage is recognized in the United States. In his latest article, published in the conservative Weekly Standard, he argues we have something to learn from the Scandinavia experience. “Marriage is slowly dying in Scandinavia,” Kurtz begins ominously. “A majority of children in Sweden and Norway are born out of wedlock. Sixty percent of first-born children in Denmark have unmarried parents. Not coincidentally, these countries have had something close to full gay marriage for a decade or more.”

Gay marriage will undermine the institution of marriage, Kurtz concludes, and Scandinavia proves it. There’s one major problem at the outset for Kurtz’s argument. There is not one gay marriage in any country he cites. In 1989, Denmark adopted a registered partnership law that granted most of the benefits and obligations of marriage to same-sex couples, with the notable exception of adoption rights. Norway adopted a similar law in 1993, and Sweden expanded its cohabitation law along the same lines in 1994. (Not until 2001 did a European country—the Netherlands—recognize gay marriages that are legally identical to traditional heterosexual marriages.) Thus, Kurtz blames “gay marriage” for worsening a host of social ills before it even existed.

Second, even if these Scandinavian gay partnerships could be called marriages, Kurtz shows only a correlation between them and marital decline. For example, after Kurtz notes that marital problems are highest in European countries where gay “marriage” has a foothold, and lowest where it does not, he writes: “This suggests that gay marriage is both a cause and effect of the increasing separation between marriage and parenthood.” But this is a correlation; it does not show causation.

There are also correlations between marital decline and nongay marriage phenomena, such as rising women’s equality (in employment and elsewhere); no-fault divorce; rising incomes and prosperity; a generous welfare state that serves a caretaker role; longer life and better health; contraception; abortion; less religiosity; and so on. Any of these is a more likely culprit than gay marriage.

Does Kurtz conclude we should return women to barefoot-and-pregnant legal status, ban divorce, tamp down on incomes, lower the quality of medical care, ban the use of contraceptives, and erase the distinction between church and state? All of these things would probably have a positive effect on marriage rates, divorce rates, and illegitimacy—but at a very high and unacceptable cost to people like him. Yet Kurtz wants to ban gay marriages, which would have negligible or no effect on pre-existing social problems, at very high cost to the lives of gay people.

In an effort to demonstrate gays really don’t want marriage, Kurtz notes that only 2,372 gay couples had registered after nine years of the Danish cohabitation law, only 674 after four years in Norway, and only 749 after four years in Sweden. These are tiny numbers in countries of 5.1 million, 4.2 million, and 8.5 million people, respectively, in the 1990s. They seriously undercut Kurtz’s claim that registered partnerships are destroying marriage in those countries.

Even if Kurtz could demonstrate that these Scandinavian gay partnerships have contributed to the erosion of marriage as an institution, he only reaches a conclusion long ago pressed by gay conservatives. It is the opposition to gay marriage that has led to the proliferation of alternatives to marriage itself. These alternatives serve to knock marriage off its pedestal as the gold standard for relationships, something feminist and libertarian critics of marriage might applaud, but traditionalist defenders of marriage should abhor.

Traditionalists like Kurtz rightly worry about the rise in out-of-wedlock births in Europe and America. Notably, registered partnerships in Scandinavia restrict or forbid adoptions or artificial insemination by gay couples. That is, these partnerships encourage the separation of wedlock from parenthood.

Full-fledged gay marriages would not encourage that separation; they would encourage the opposite. In two respects, gay marriage would result in fewer children being raised by single or cohabiting parents. First, there are about 150,000 gay couples in the U.S. right now raising children. Yet these couples cannot be married. Current law guarantees these children will be raised in unmarried households. Second, most gay parents get their children from prior heterosexual marriages or relationships that many of them entered because of the pressures created by antigay social stigma. To the extent gay marriage increases social acceptance, and provides models of married gay couples, we should expect these people to be channeled earlier into gay relationships and away from doomed heterosexual relationships that produce children.

Most telling, perhaps, is Kurtz’s resistance to changing no-fault divorce laws. Of all the legal changes to marriage over the past 40 years, no-fault divorce has had the greatest impact on the institution. Next to it, gay marriage as a legal reform is trivial. This shows, I think, that Kurtz isn’t really serious about defending marriage. Like the many doomsayers before him, his goal is to keep gays down.

Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.


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