Alex Blaze

Is same-sex marriage just for white people?

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 01, 2008 12:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: Benoit Denizet-Lewis, California, Massachusetts, race, Vermont

Earlier this week, I posted about the lengthy article in the NY Times Sunday magazine that profiled young, married gay couples in Massachusetts. The couples were all white and wealthy, and I took author Benoit Denizet-Lewis to task over that - it would have been great for the article to have been inclusive.

He did include an explanation as to why he only profiled white people that appeared on quite a few blogs discussing the issue:

To find out, I spent time over the next few months with a handful of young married and engaged gay couples -- including Joshua and Benjamin. All were college-educated and white. (A 2008 study of gay and lesbian couples in Vermont, California and Massachusetts -- three states that offer some form of legal recognition for gay couples -- found that "couples who choose to legalize their same-sex relationships... are overwhelmingly European American.")

Lots more after.

While I'm critical of the central role marriage has played in LGBT activism at the expense of other issues, I've never bought the idea that it's just a "white" issue. It'd be paternalistic of me to try to decide for Black LGBT folks what to work for and plain insulting to think that I would know better than leaders in the Black LGBT community. On the other hand, a false "we're all the same and equal already" would be wrong as it would mask racial disparity, if it exists.

I also didn't think it was true - same-sex couples come in all colors. But identifying as a couple isn't the same thing as registering as partners, getting civilly united, or marrying, where those options are available.

I was interested in that "2008 study of gay and lesbian couples," as were several friends I talked to, some people in the comments of the other post, a few of the listserves I'm on, and quite a few other bloggers (the Blade's blog, Visible Vote, Queerty, Tin Man, and Joan Garry, to name a few). So I emailed Denizet-Lewis and he responded with study, which was three questionnaire-based studies of registered/married same-sex couples in Massachusetts, Vermont, and California.

In each of these three states, the researchers found a list of same-sex couples and wrote them a letter asking them to participate in the study (which wasn't about demographics, exactly; the study was about their attitudes towards marriage and other information was collected as a part of that study).

Anyway, in Vermont, 18% of the civilly united folks responded (the questionnaire was to individuals, not couples). In California, 400 couples were selected (3.7% of the couples with same-sex DP's), and 258 completed questionnaires were received (that's 54% of those selected, 1.8% of the total). In Massachusetts, the researchers contacted the 422 same-sex married couples in Cambridge and Somerville who married in 2004. 31% turned in completed surveys.

In other words, the study can't be said to have found the demographics of same-sex couples in California, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The participants self-selected in many ways that led them to answer the survey or not, or, in the case of Massachusetts, living in Cambridge and Somerville was a requirement. The researchers even say (emph. mine):

Table 1 shows the gender and race/ethnicity composition of all 924 participants from the three states. The sample was overwhelmingly European American (83.1% in California, 88.8% in Massachusetts, and 93.3% in Vermont).

This is saying something different than Denizet-Lewis's paraphrasing of that sentence:

A 2008 study of gay and lesbian couples in Vermont, California and Massachusetts -- three states that offer some form of legal recognition for gay couples -- found that "couples who choose to legalize their same-sex relationships... are overwhelmingly European American."

Notice the shift? (And, being a little nit-picky, the sample wasn't even of same-sex couples; rather it was of people in those couples.) [Update: I fucked up. He was quoting another part of the report that uses the phrase "overwhelmingly European American," not the one that I quoted above. Furthermore, he obviously wasn't paraphrasing because it was in the quotation marks (you'd think an English teacher/former copy editor would notice something like that). The first quotation is still important to the bigger question of racial demographics, so it's staying up there, but as for Denizet-Lewis, his quotation is accurate. I apologize.]

Furthermore, "overwhelmingly" turned out to be "83.1% in California, 88.8% in Massachusetts, and 93.3% in Vermont." According to Census data (via Wikipedia; yeah, I'm a blogger, not an academic), California is 79.07% white, Massachusetts is 87.89%, and Vermont is 97.95%.

Californian same-sex couples who participated in the study are more slightly more likely to be white than their state in general, those in Vermont are slightly less, and those in Massachusetts are about the same.

In other words, the fact that most same-sex couples in those three states were found to be white can be attributed possibly to:

  • self-selection via survey participation,
  • selection by those performing the study, and
  • a reflection of the state's demographics.
That data does not support the idea that same-sex marriage is just for white people, to answer the question in the title.

But I was also interested in why Denizet-Lewis chose to profile only white people, and he explains in an email to me:

You might also be interested to know that I spent a month looking for a young married couple of color from Mass to include in the story. I found one--an Asian couple, who were in their early 30s. But they had a long-distance relationship, so I wouldn't have been able to hang out with them together enough. I desperately tried to find a young married couple of color, because I knew I would be attacked for not including any. But, in the end, there wasn't anything I could do. I'm sure there must be a handful out there, but in my searching (and there is no statewide databse that has the race, or even the ages, of gay married couples), I didn't find any. The fact is that in Massachusetts, young gay men who are getting married are mostly white, and they're mostly middle and upper-middle class.

My story represented that truth.

He only looked in Massachusetts to find married-with-that-specific-word same-sex couples.

I'm still contacting more people and trying to find out more here, because this is a potentially large question with big, complex answer for the LGBT community, in terms of what it says about our activism, our race relations, what we think about marriage, and what the future of the LGBT community will look like.

I'll keep you posted.

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I actually didn't "paraphrase" or "shift" anything. Please correct your post. What follows is the text of the study. Notice the first paragraph:

Same-Sex Couples of Color
We hoped that including two states with large ethnic-minority populations
would increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our sample, yet the
majority of same-sex couples who participated in our study identified as
White. One possibility involves a sampling bias—that people of color were
less likely to complete the survey. However, it appears that couples who
choose to legalize their same-sex relationships are overwhelmingly
European American. Vermont is the only one of the three states in our study
that asks about race and ethnicity on the civil union certificate. In 2004,
92% of civil union participants identified as White, exactly the same as that
of our Vermont sample (Richard McCoy, Vermont Department of Health,
personal communication, April 21, 2006). Thus, we have reason to believe
that our sample was comparable to the overall population of same-sex couples
in legalized relationships in regard to race and ethnic composition.
In the Black Pride Survey (Battle et al., 2002), marriage and domestic
partnerships were listed as one of three of the most important issues facing
Black LGBT people. Yet, only 6% of the sample was married to a same-sex
partner; this finding corresponds to the results of our study for African
American respondents.
Why are same-sex couples of color less likely to legalize their relationships?
It is possible that LGB people of color may be faced with the
dilemma of choosing between the LGB communities and the communities
of color (e.g., Greene, 1994, 1997, 2000; Walters, 1998). Greene (1994) has
referred to lesbians of color as those who are facing a triple jeopardy based
on minority gender, race, and sexual orientation—which would logically
present gay men of color with a double jeopardy. Consider, for example, the
following quote:
If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to
say to one of them, “No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome,”
because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or,
I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual,
or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with
me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have a
revolution. (Parker, as quoted in Battle et al., 2002, p. vi)
Thus, same-sex couples of color may prefer not to come out publicly (in the
form of a legalized relationship that is a matter of public record) in order to
stay close to their communities of origin. Bennett and Battle (2001) have
described the role of homophobia in Black churches, for example.
Finally, marriage has been criticized by queer scholars of color. In the
chapter “Is Gay Marriage Racist?” (Bailey, Kandaswamy, & Richardson,
2004), the authors state,
In the U.S., race is the strongest determinant of whether or not the state
chooses to recognize your parental ties. Black families are the most likely of
any racial group to be disrupted by Child Protection authorities, and 42 percent
of all children in foster care in the U.S. are black. If being married doesn’t
protect straight black families from having their children taken away, it’s
unlikely that it will protect queer black families. It is incredibly important
that we organize to have non-biological ties to children recognized and
respected. While marriage might offer limited protections to some people, it
will not change the racist and homophobic practices through which Child
Protection Services determines who is fit or unfit to be a parent. (p. 89)

Thanks for pointing that out, Benoit, and I'm embarrassed and sorry I didn't notice you were quoting from page 27 instead of page 9.

It's been updated.

I really liked the Times article! It's dumb to whine about "slut-shaming" any time anyone articulates their preference for long-term monagamy and the reasons behind it.

I don't have a problem with people preferring long term relationships, etc. I don't even see how you can take that to be the point. I'm more concerned when the reasons are things like "Everyone else is just fucked up" or "I just never thought about anything else!"

I don't see the problem with his choosing of actually married couples. Most of the article is actually framed under the traditional concept of marriage in terms of union. Additionally, when one writes about young gay couples getting married, it only follows that one would be talking about couples in Massachusetts. Civil unions and domestic partnerships, while representing state recognition of unions, are not marriages, nor do they carry the same social meaning.

With that said, if I were to question anything, it'd be his methods. It looks to me like some good advertisement would have done the trick. He chose to just search through his social circles, which greatly limited the results.

Then again, the statistics do make sense. One just needs to look at absurdities like "same-gender loving" in order to tell that minorities which are pressured to reside on the lower socioeconomic levels would progress along the living openly issue much more slowly due to survival concerns.

Marriage benefits are more numerous and more valuable for the better off. If neither member of a couple has health insurance, they aren't better off if married. If there is no household joint asset such as a home or a joint account with substantial money, the issue of taxation of the survivor becomes less urgent. Formal legal marriage has always been for the prosperous - the poor have gotten along with common-law relationships for millenia.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 2, 2008 12:46 AM

I like to tread carefully here because of the number of gay men and women I have known who have had interracial relationships. Were there no interracial couples who could have been included in this sampling?

Would the magazine in question have published pictures of an interracial couple in a cold water flat if that is all the author could have found? I doubt it, considering the "Ozzie & Harriet" pictures they chose to stage.

Also, having known poor Gay couples I can agree with Nancy about the intense need for privacy and the greater need for anonomity to protect what few assets you might have. They are frequently also less likely to be out to their families in their mid twenties.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 2, 2008 8:10 AM

Didn't that sound tragic? Now that eight hours have gone by I should tell you of a special interacial couple. John Smith & Wilfred Cibone were great friends, that I miss, who were dear enough to visit us in Chicago after a chance meeting in an airport in Thailand thirteen years ago.

We visited them in return in South Africa and went to Zimbabwae on safari with them. They were elderly way back then and were a font of information about being Gay, and being in love, against all odds. John was white, Wilfred was black and born in an African rondovel tribal structure. Due to the expectations of being african Wilfred married and fathered two children. John and Wilfred were a couple 48 weeks of every year anyway. During apartheid they were forced to leave South Africa in part because they were suspected of being gay, but more because Wilfred was a partner in a white man's business.

They moved on to London and were so successful that they had a royal warrent above the door of their business. They came back to South Africa at the end of aparthied to "retire." Wilfred always spent four weeks a year with his family in South Africa even when living in England. Wilfred was one of the very few native African men willing to acknowledge that they were Gay in 1946 when he and John met. Although older by five years, John took care of Wilfred as he declined in health until the end. Without Wilfred John soon died at age 84.

How many people commit to one another for over fifty years WITH ONLY HARDSHIP as their reward?

Think of it: black, white, gay, apartheid, wife, children, business, and all the complications therein and with it all they clung to one another.
Is there any marriage better than that?

I'll be interested to see Ellen Andersen's take on this. She has her own polling data that might dovetail nicely with this.

I was also happy to see that Benoit came to correct the misunderstanding.