Civil rights bonanza (demographic fiasco)

Keeping it in perspective.

The at least 823 legal homogamous weddings in New York state this weekend mark a civil rights milestone. That’s the big news. Celebrations abound.

That said, there are some relatively small matters I’d like to mention. Sooner or later we’ll have to clean this up, technically speaking.

1. No one knows how many men are marrying men, or women marrying women.

Many people seem to assume one of two things: that these things just take care of themselves, and “statistics” emerge; or that “marriage is just marriage,” and it’s no more important to count different kinds of marriage separately than it is to count the colors of their outfits — dwelling on it is just so binary.

But (as Gary Gates explained to me last week) California, with perhaps the largest number of legally-married homogamous couples, cannot report their numbers because the state’s marriage licenses (like this one) just record the applicants’ names, not their genders. New York’s marriage license has sex/gender “optional.” You might think that’s awesome. But “statistics” will emerge anyway, from somewhere, and everyone – including people who don’t think I should keep talking about this – will consume and repeat those numbers. So, wouldn’t it be nice if they were accurate?

2. The technical language here is absent.

I am convinced that if marriage rights had been extended to include same-sex couples by 1900, the accepted technical terms to describe the sex of people in marriage would be homogamous and heterogamous. Because same-sex marriage was not on the table, however, social scientists thoughtlessly started using those terms for other things, such as race, education and age patterns. The lack of statistics and the lack of conceptual terminology are deeply linked – and both related to the heteronormative nature of family law, religion and demographic tradition under which we still labor.

(One alternative, practiced by Gates and others, is to use the terms “same sex” and “different sex,” thereby avoiding the problematic use of “opposite-sex.” I was happy to see that New York’s law uses “different sex,” but – just as I feared – even before the law took effect the City had slipped into using “opposite sex” in its instructions to couples.)

My detailed argument is here. But instead of pleading with the world to agree with me, I think I’ll just start calling homogamy and heterogamy “the technical terms.” It sounds less desperate.

3. The Federal government counts divorces for people whose marriages it doesn’t.

This is just an interesting aside, but it occurred to me in looking at the groundbreaking new data collected annually by the Census Bureau in the American Community Survey. For the first time in decades – in a giant sample – the ACS asks vital demographic questions such as “In the past 12 months, did this person get married / widowed / divorced?” as well as, “how many times has this person been married?” and, “in what year did this person get married?” It’s hard to overstate how valuable this information is in my business.

Unfortunately, homogamous marriage is not built into the survey (yet), so married same-sex couples are “unmarried” if they are reported (changed to “unmarried partners”). However, if someone filling it out is divorced – so the ex-spouse isn’t present, and his or her sex is therefore unknown – then the divorce is kosher and remains on the books, even if the marriage it ended was banned. Go figure!

Even though most demographers are liberals (or so it seems to me), lots of classical demographic models are based on the conservative assumption that marriage is “between one man and one woman.” That makes things simpler. It means that if you count either male or female marriages and divorces, for example, you have a clean count of couples marrying or breaking up. (Demographers also used to assume that childbearing women were a subset of married women, that every child had two parents who had no children in other families, and etc.) No more!

The old scrap heap of history keeps growing.

1 Comment

Filed under In the news, Politics, Uncategorized

One response to “Civil rights bonanza (demographic fiasco)

  1. Pingback: Poll: What do you call homogamous marriage? « Family Inequality

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