Monday, October 8, 2012

The survey that proves nothing about the intracommunity debate about same-sex marriage

It's September 12, 2001. Are you a patriotic American?  Yes or no.  Just yes or no.  No other choices and no discussion.  I venture to guess that almost every American would have said yes if asked on that day.  There is something about being attacked that produces unity against an enemy.  But the answer to that question at that moment in time would have said nothing about deep divisions in this country over American imperialism or treatment of immigrants from Muslim countries.  For that, more questions would need to be asked.  And those answers would certainly have shown disagreements.

What I have just written seems so obvious, and yet two researchers of LGBT issues have made a mistake of a similar nature.  In this Bilerico post last week, Ken Sherrill and Andrew Flores report on a survey asking almost 1200 LGBT respondents whether they support allowing same-sex couples to marry.  Yes or no. 85% said yes.  And the small minority opposing it were much more likely to be conservatives than liberals.  From this Sherrill and Flores have concluded that the view Paula Ettelbrick expressed over twenty years ago, skeptical of same-sex marriage, lacks support, that "marriage equality is not a matter of serious debate among rank-and-file LGBT people."  The authors actually suggest that maybe intellectuals, academics and journalists were the only ones to ever doubt the goal of marriage equality.

Do you support security for Jews in Israel?  Yes or no.  Just yes or no.  Can you imagine 85% of Jews saying yes and then concluding there is no serious debate among Jews about the parameters and policies of the state of Israel?  It's ridiculous, as any one day's perusal of Haaretz would reveal.

Political opposition to marriage for same-sex couples today is an attack on LGBT people.  Opponents think our open and proud existence causes social harm and that our relationships are less valuable than heterosexual ones.  So to a yes-or-no question about supporting marriage for same-sex couples, gay rights supporters will almost always say yes.  Paula Ettelbrick said yes.  I say yes, and readers of my book and my blog know I think much of the advocacy in the name of marriage equality is divisive, destructive, and misguided.  85% of LGBT people saying yes says nothing about the extent and the content of disagreement about the tactics and priorities of the movement for marriage equality.

To get at real divisions among LGBT people, here are just a few questions a survey could ask:
Should a couple have to marry to make health care decisions for each other?
Should a couple have to marry for a court to have the power to divide their property fairly if their relationship ends?
Do you think the fight for same-sex marriage has taken money and time away from more critical issues?
Do you think marriage should be a religious institution only and that the civil status for all couples should get a new name, like civil partnership?
Should an employer provide domestic partner benefits to both same-sex and different-sex couples?

Or how about this more complex question:
Imagine two married couples.  The income in each household is $80,000 a year, but in one household one spouse earns all the income.  In the other household, the two spouses each earn $40,000 a year. Right now our Social Security system gives much more money to the couple in which one spouse earns all the money than it gives to the couple in which the two spouses contribute equally to the income.
Which goal is more important to you?
A.  Make sure married same-sex couples with one earner get the benefits that married different-sex couples with one earner get now, or
B.   Change the way Social Security is calculated so that two-income marriages, gay and straight, are no longer discriminated against?

(Caveat:  I do not claim any competence in designing appropriately worded survey questions so I would leave that to someone else....)

I think those types of questions would uncover the differences that exist among LGBT people about marriage.  And I think the conclusion that Sherrill and Flores drew from the yes-or-no survey data they analyzed, that there is no left critique of same-sex marriage, is wrong enough that they should withdraw it.

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