Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date




In a well-known New Yorker cartoon, a man and a woman sit together on a couch, clearly in the midst of a conversation about marriage for gay and lesbian couples. “Haven't they suffered enough?” one of them asks. Although the cartoon characters jest, the question of why gay people are fighting so hard for the right to marry is a serious one. After all, marriage rates have been dropping steadily in the United States and in much of the world, and divorce rates remain high. Why, then, are lesbians and gay men fighting so hard to join an institution that appears, by most indicators, to be on the decline?

There is no single answer to this question, of course. Political ideology and social experiences are important determinants of any given person's position, and individuals’ positions are often complex, with overlapping justifications. From among the many possible reasons, this chapter looks closely at several leading responses to the “Why bother with marriage?” question. Building on these responses, the chapter also offers an analytic framework for understanding contemporary marriage debates and a foundation for thinking about how marriage might fare as we move beyond the current crossroads.

Note that the inquiry here is not about why a particular gay or lesbian couple might want to get married. That question, for most couples, is answered by reference to love rather than rights; by desires for binding familial commitments rather than concerns about the signaling effects of legally recognized marital status. At an individualized level, one could answer the “why bother with marriage” question simply by saying that marriage has traditionally been, and continues to be, what adult couples seek when they want state sanctification of their relationships, and that same-sex couples are simply asking for what different-sex couples already have.


Family Law | Law | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies


This material has been published in "Marriage at the Crossroads: Law, Policy, and the Brave New World of Twenty-First-Century Families", edited by Marsha Garrison and Elizabeth S. Scott. This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use.