Saturday, October 24, 1998
When the voters of Hawaii enter the voting booth on Nov. 3, they will be making a historic choice: to allow the state's judicial system to legally recognize the living situation of committed same-sex couples or to prevent it from doing so.
For months now, opponents of equal marriage rights have argued that Hawaii shouldn't be the first state in the United States to recognize same-sex couples as being married. Such an untested venture, they warn, could have tragic consequences.
Yet in truth, the concept of "gay marriage" is not untried in our culture. For almost a decade now, Scandinavian countries have had a form of marriage for gay and lesbian couples. This reality holds a great deal of valuable information for Hawaii, as it debates the pros and cons of same-sex marriage.
Denmark was the first of these countries to allow same-sex couples to "marry." In 1989 it passed the registered partnership law, which stated that gay and lesbian couples desiring to make a legal commitment to one another could have a ceremony at their local city hall, after which they would be subject to the same legal rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples (with the exception of a church wedding and adoption rights).
In other words, all laws in Denmark pertaining to marriage or married couples would therefore apply to these gay and lesbian couples as well.
This concept of marriage caught on quickly in Northern Europe, with Norway (1993), Sweden (1995) and Iceland (1996) passing virtually identical laws. The Netherlands passed a very similar law in 1997.
What can Hawaii learn from these countries, especially Denmark? A lot.
The current public debate in Hawaii virtually mirrors that in Denmark in the year before the law's passage. When stories of a pending bill that would permit marriage for gays and lesbians first hit the Danish press, the ensuing debate was strikingly similar to the discussion in Hawaii.
Proponents argued that permitting gays and lesbians to have their partnerships legally recognized was ethically important for several reasons:
It would give same-sex couples the stability needed to live comfortably in a long-term committed relationship, and would prevent them from suffering needlessly if any unexpected situations should arise, such as the death of a partner.
It would encourage gay and lesbian couples to establish permanent relationships and thereby give them a personal sense of security and peace of mind. Some argued that this would help to reduce the spread of HIV infection in Denmark.
It was important to demonstrate that the Danish people believed in equality for all their citizens, and that committed same-sex couples had the right to be treated as equals with committed heterosexual couples.
Opponents of the legislation took three different stances against any form of marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
The first group, comprised mainly of fundamentalist Christians, opposed the legislation on religious grounds, arguing that the Bible expressly opposed the practice of homosexuality and therefore the change was immoral. (In my opinion, the Bible can be and has been interpreted in a variety of ways, some of which support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.)
The second group argued that passage of any gay marriage legislation would lead to the disintegration of the institution, as Danish marriage law would lose the respect of the populace. Passage of this law, they argued, was the beginning of a slippery slope that would lead to a moral decay in Danish society and a rejection of the institution of marriage among the mainstream public.
The third group argued that the legislation was unnecessary and, indeed, harmful on administrative and technical grounds. A gay marriage law might cost taxpayers a great deal of money and would not be used by many couples. It could also be a nightmare to administer, they stated, and would generally be more trouble than it was worth.
Regardless of the naysayers, the legislation passed after lengthy debates in Parliament. It went into effect on Oct. 1, 1989. So now that this is 1998, almost a decade after the law has gone into effect, what have we learned?
First, and most important, the change is considered a great success. After a minor amount of confusion during the first two months of enactment -- as local government officials and businesses adjusted their operations to the legal equalization of same-sex couples and heterosexual couples -- the law has worked smoothly and without incident.
We also know that the number of couples taking advantage of the law has been relatively small. Approximately 4,000 gay men and lesbians have been registered, in a country of just over 5 million residents. This is fewer than one in every 1,000 people.
There are many possible reasons for these low numbers, too numerous to go into detail. However, these low numbers are seen in each country with this law. This observation, plus the low number of Hawaii residents who registered for the new "reciprocal beneficiaries" law, suggests that the number of same-sex couples in Hawaii who will take advantage of marriage will be relatively low.
In addition, the low numbers suggest that permitting same-sex marriages will have a low if negligible cost associated with it. None of the Scandinavian countries have reported a noticeable cost to taxpayers in permitting same-sex couples to "marry," nor have they noticed any administrative difficulties. It is unlikely the case would be any different in Hawaii.
We have also learned that those who predicted the downfall of the institution of marriage -- when gays and lesbians gained access to the institution -- were mistaken. In fact, the available statistics suggest that permitting committed gay and lesbian couples access to the benefits of marriage has actually strengthened the institution.
Since passage of the law, the number of heterosexual marriages in Denmark per capita has gone up -- from 6.1 marriages per 1,000 residents in 1990 to 6.8 in 1996 -- while the number of heterosexual divorces per capita has gone down -- from 2.7 divorces per 1,000 in 1990 to 2.4 in 1996.
Finally, there is the subject of HIV infection and AIDS. Could it be possible that by encouraging committed partnerships between same-sex couples, the government can reduce the numbers of those infected by HIV? The statistics from Denmark suggest that this may, in fact, be possible.
In 1990, just after passage of the law, compared to the last 12-month period between September 1997 to September 1998, the rate of reported HIV infection in Denmark has declined by approximately 30 percent. It is a statistic worthy of attention.
Ultimately, the predictions of those who foresaw problems with allowing same-sex couples to access the benefits of marriage were inaccurate. The only noticeable effect the law has had has been to support a number of happy, stable, committed couples who can now live as productive members of society without having to worry about the legal stability of their long-term partnership.
Darren Spedale is a Fulbright scholar who conducted
research on the registered partnership law in Denmark. The New York
resident is completing a book on the results of the Scandinavian
experience with same-sex marriage.