Legislation for same-sex marriage overseas provides a series of natural experiments on social, economic and personal benefits. By Mike Seccombe.

The money case for gay marriage

A same-sex civil ceremony in Pokolbin, New South Wales.
A same-sex civil ceremony in Pokolbin, New South Wales.

We all learnt at school about the Mayflower, the little ship that brought the first load of a hundred or so Puritans to America.

They first set foot in the new world at Plymouth Rock, on December 16, 1620.

Except that they didn’t. The Puritans first landed somewhere else: at the very northern tip of Cape Cod, at a place now called Provincetown, Massachusetts.

But after only about five weeks, following a skirmish with the local Nauset tribe, they abandoned plans for a settlement there and beat a forced retreat to Plymouth, 30 kilometres across Cape Cod Bay.

Almost 400 years later, puritans still aren’t welcome in Provincetown. By historical irony, the place where the Pilgrims originally planned to establish a community based on their strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, is now the gayest community in the United States.

According to census data, the town has 163 same-sex couples per 1000 households, way more, proportionately, than places such as New York City or San Francisco.

Its year-round population is only about 3000, mind you. But in the summer this pretty little tourist town – so atypical of America, with its old shingled houses and narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets, its lack of strip malls and advertising hoardings, its rainbow flags instead of the Stars and Stripes – grows to about 60,000. The majority of them are same-sex couples, according to the Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, Candice Collins-Boden.

For many decades, she says, Provincetown was a place where it was “okay to be gay”, where queer people could “hold hands in public and go about their business” unjudged and unmolested. A “haven” discreetly located at the very end of the cape.

Then on May 17, 2004, P-town, as the locals call it, came to huge national prominence. That was the day the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that under the state’s constitution, marriage could not be restricted to heterosexual couples.

That day, with the help of 75 volunteers and with the full backing of the town government, town clerk Doug Johnstone processed 154 marriage licences. Almost one-third of the licences Johnstone signed were issued to out-of-state couples, in defiance of a threat by the Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, that Johnstone could be arrested for defying the law of other US states that had specifically banned same-sex unions.

But Johnstone and the town got away with it. Under the glare of national media attention and in the face of a revolt by a dozen other local governments that followed P-town’s lead, Romney backed down.

A little context is necessary to understand what a big deal this was. Same-sex marriage had been a contentious issue in the US for more than a decade, ever since Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that under that state’s constitution same-sex couples had the right to marry. In response, federal congress passed the Defence of Marriage Act in 1996, which did not actually ban such unions but denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. The act left it to individual states to determine whether “gay marriage” should be legal.

Across the country religious and social conservatives rushed to the task of ensuring it would not be legal, pushing for changes to state constitutions to outlaw same-sex marriage. In 2004 alone, 13 states changed their constitutions. By May 2012, 30 states had banned marriages, civil unions, or, in three really hardline states, any “marriage-like contract”.

But Massachusetts, the best educated and most liberal of US states, was the first to buck the trend. It did not alter its constitution to defeat the court’s ruling. And Provincetown led the way.

There are a couple of lessons for Australia in all this. The first relates to the economic benefits of same-sex marriage.

Provincetown did what it did for moral reasons, but it also enjoyed an enormous “first-mover advantage”, as economists call it. Between January and April 2004, just three marriage licences were issued there; between May, when the court decision came down, and the end of 2004, there were 873, of which 848 were issued to same-sex couples.

“There was a huge boost to our economy,” says Collins-Boden, of the Chamber of Commerce.

It has “evened out a bit” since, she says, as a result of the liberalisation of marriage laws elsewhere in the US, but there still are hundreds of weddings each year in Provincetown.

“Provincetown remains a destination for same-sex marriages, for people from elsewhere in the United States and even internationally,” she says.

We’re talking big money here. According to research conducted by the Williams Institute, a think tank based at UCLA, which describes itself as “dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy”, the Massachusetts economy benefited to the tune of $US111 million in the first five years after it legalised same-sex marriage, just from spending on gay weddings.

Following the ruling of the US Supreme Court in 2015, which overrode the states and made it legal in all of America, the institute crunched the economic data again.

It multiplied the number of same-sex marriages entered into in the year after the decision – 123,000, according to official records – by the amount spent on the average same-sex wedding – $US11,000, according to survey data. The product of the calculation was $US1.353 billion.

When researchers factored in data compiled in Massachusetts showing the average same-sex wedding involved 16 out-of-state guests, who each spent $US116 on food and lodging, the total rose to $US1.581 billion, enough to support an estimated 18,900 jobs.

So, what economic benefits might flow in Australia?

In 2012, Professor Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute, made an estimate for this country, applying much the same technique as she had applied in the US.

She took data from the Bureau of Statistics showing 33,000 same-sex couples in Australia, factored in a survey that indicated 54 per cent of them wished to marry, and multiplied that by an estimated $9000 per wedding. Result: $161 million in new spending over three years if same-sex marriage was legalised.

But her figures were very conservative. One reason was her lowball estimate of the cost per wedding. Industry data suggest the average cost of a heterosexual wedding is more than $60,000. There seems no reason why same-sex couples would spend less.

In 2015, economists at ANZ Bank reckoned a gain to the Australian economy of $500 million in the first year after legalisation. This year’s census indicates the benefit could be even greater. It counted 46,800 same-sex couples in Australia, nearly 50 per cent more than the ABS figures showed.

If we assume just half of those people would like to marry, and assume also they are prepared to spend as lavishly as their straight counterparts, we’re looking at well over a billion dollars.

For reasons unknown, the “Yes” campaign has not put a lot of emphasis on the economic benefits of changing the Marriage Act. It’s odd, given all the evidence from other areas of social policy – from gambling to tobacco to payday lenders – showing the preparedness of conservatives to overcome their moral qualms when money is at stake.

Another lesson for Australia from the overseas experience with marriage equality is that once the change has been made, people generally come to accept it.

In this country, those advocating a “No” vote in the postal survey issue dire warnings that we will suffer a kind of buyers’ remorse if the marriage law changes, that people will wake up to the reality of the creeping “homosexual agenda” and realise they have made a terrible mistake. But the international evidence contradicts this.

In the US, the Gallup poll has tracked attitudes to same-sex marriage for several decades. In 1996, when congress passed the Defence of Marriage Act, only 27 per cent of people supported equality. Fifteen years later, in 2011, supporters were in the majority. By May 2015, a month before the Supreme Court decision, it was 60 per cent in favour, 37 against. As of May this year, support was 64 per cent and opposition 34. Support appears still to be increasing.

The same pattern holds across other jurisdictions.

In Canada, a bare majority of the population favoured same-sex unions when parliament legalised them in 2005. A decade later, 70 per cent of people were in support, and just 22 per cent opposed. Interestingly, the biggest opinion shift was among older voters and conservative men. Even more interestingly, Canada’s Conservative Party, which, under the leadership of Tony Abbott’s ideological “soulmate” Stephen Harper, had stubbornly opposed same-sex marriage for more than a decade, finally accepted the will of the people and changed its policy in May this year.

In New Zealand, opposition also has crumbled, perhaps in part because they now are doing very nicely from the marriage tourism business. There were 954 same-sex marriages in New Zealand last year – half of them involving foreigners, and a quarter involving Australian couples. Last December, Bill English, New Zealand’s socially conservative, economic rationalist prime minister, conceded his previous objection to same-sex unions had been a mistake.

We see the same pattern in other countries with marriage equality, of which there now are more than two dozen, with a combined population of some 800 million. The pattern is one of apprehension before the change, followed by growing public and political acceptance afterwards.

But the process of change can be traumatic, particularly when it is effected not through the courts or legislatures, as has been the case in most places, but through a public vote. That can get very ugly, as we should have known, given the example of Ireland.

Unlike Australia, Ireland had no alternative: change to the marriage laws required constitutional amendment, which meant voting in a referendum. As in Australia, though, those campaigning against marriage equality dragged extraneous issues into the debate.

Notwithstanding the euphoric scenes when the Irish referendum passed, same-sex-attracted people and their families suffered through the debate. A survey of 1657 LGBTQI people and their family members from all age groups and both rural and urban areas, conducted by Irish and Australian researchers, found high levels of psychological and social damage arising from the campaign.

Respondents reported strained or broken relationships within families, friendship groups, workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods, and high levels of anxiety and anger. Young people and the children of same-sex couples felt particularly targeted. Only 23 per cent of Irish LGBTQI people and families in the survey said they would be happy to have the referendum again.

One member of the team who did the Irish survey, Dr Sharon Dane, a social psychology researcher at the University of Queensland, points to numerous other studies from the US, where people also were required to vote on various state initiatives on same-sex marriage.

“Those studies showed that in states in the US where they had plebiscites, like we are doing here, all the negative rhetoric around it led to a higher incidence of anxiety, mood disorders and general mental-health issues,” she says.

Indeed, the US provided a huge natural experiment in the consequences of changing marriage laws, because before the Supreme Court decision of 2015, the matter of same-sex marriage was left to individual states to decide. Thus it was possible to compare states that instituted bans on same-sex marriage against those that did not.

“The most interesting study,” Dane says, “was a big one in 2010 that looked not only at states that legislated against and those that didn’t, but looked also at before and after [the law changes]. And they compared heterosexual as well as homosexual people.”

The researchers surveyed more than 40,000 people in 2001-02, when only a couple of states had banned same-sex marriage. Then they reinterviewed most of the original respondents in 2004-05. In the interim, at the 2004 election, 14 states approved constitutional amendments defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The analysis found a big increase in psychiatric disorders among lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents in states that banned same-sex marriage, including increased mood disorders (36.6 per cent), generalised anxiety disorders (248.2 per cent), disorders relating to alcohol usage (41.9 per cent), and psychiatric comorbidity (36.3 per cent).

“These psychiatric disorders did not increase significantly among LGB respondents living in states without constitutional amendments,” the report said.

Nor was there any significant increase among heterosexuals living in states with constitutional amendments.

A similar study – involving some of the same researchers – found health improvements among gay and bisexual men in Massachusetts after that state legalised same-sex marriage. They made significantly fewer visits to healthcare providers, particularly mental-health care providers.

The conclusion? That policies that “confer protections on same-sex couples” not only made them healthier and happier, but reduced healthcare costs.

The starkest findings of all, however, came out of a long-term study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, involving three-quarters of a million high-school students in 47 US states over 16 years to January 2015. It compared the numbers of suicide attempts in the states that permitted same-sex marriage with those that did not. The results were published in JAMA Pediatrics, in April this year.

In states that had legalised same-sex marriage, it found a 7 per cent relative reduction in the proportion of high-school students attempting suicide. This reduction was “concentrated among students who were sexual minorities” but there was a slight decrease in suicide attempts by straight students as well.

We could go on with the facts and figures gleaned from various studies around the world about the effects of stigmatising people on the basis of their sexual preference. We could note the multiple warnings by Australian mental-health experts, including the concern of the government’s own National Mental Health Commission about “the detrimental mental-health impacts of the marriage equality debate”. We could document the increase in calls to various counselling services.

But the point is surely made.

Sharon Dane seems a little perplexed that we’re even arguing about it. The evidence is compelling: marriage equality confers big benefits economically, socially and, most importantly, personally.

“Research for decades has shown that heterosexual relationships when they are formalised through marriage, lead to greater wellbeing,” she says.

“It’s not surprising then that the same should be true of same-sex-attracted people – indeed, that the sense of wellbeing should be even higher, because it’s an affirmation that their relationship is respected, is considered legitimate and equal. And not only is their wellbeing higher, but their children feel more accepted.”

The social and religious conservatives, the latter-day puritans, can’t accept those facts, but they are fighting in retreat. Again. The arc of history is a rainbow.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2017 as "The money case for gay marriage".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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