Wilfried Rault

The legalization of homosexual marriage is opening up new research horizons

One year after the legalization of same-sex marriage in France, sociologist Wilfried Rault, co-head of the Demography, Gender and Societies research unit at INED, hopes that the legal recognition of same-sex unions will lead to the development of new survey methods to take better account of the homosexual population.

(Interview conducted in May 2014)

What assessment can we make a year after the legalization of same-sex marriage and the first weddings?

It’s really only in the long term that we will be able to analyse the figures. The number of homosexual marriages supplied by INSEE - roughly 7,000 in 2013 - can’t really be interpreted yet. First of all, because it’s difficult to form a precise idea of the population concerned. According to INSEE, at the start of 2011 around 200,000 people were living in a same-sex union in France, but that’s probably a minimum. Secondly, and above all, because the scale of the phenomenon can be assessed only over the long term. However, one interesting fact is that the average age of homosexual couples getting married - around 50 for men and 43 for women - is much higher than that for same-sex civil partnerships and for heterosexual couples. This obviously reflects a logical catch-up process, with the first couples to be married having waited a long time to be able to do so. But it could also mean that couples are being formed later on in life because a number of homosexuals still go through a "heterosexual phase" - a sign that homosexuality is still far from being an accepted part of everyday life.

Which aspects are interesting to sociologists?

It would be interesting to find out more about what makes people get married. As with heterosexual couples, homosexual couples get married for different reasons. Some of them say they have done so for legal reasons - for example, to benefit from inheritance rights that don’t exist for couples in a civil partnership. Couples with children, but in which only one person is legally recognized as a parent - the case with women having chosen assisted reproduction in a country neighbouring France - may choose to get married because they can then start adoption procedures for the person not recognized as a parent.
Other reasons are more symbolic. Gays and lesbians have often been stigmatized and even explicitly rejected. Marriage can represent a form of social recognition, signifying to others the respectability of their private lives. The law has considerable legitimating potential, even if a change in the law is not enough to bring an end to hostile behaviour.
It would also be instructive to take a closer look at how marriage celebrations are organized. When studying different-sex marriages, you see how trends in contemporary marriage are reflected in changes in ritual. From this standpoint, it will be very interesting to see if same-sex couples celebrate marriage in distinctive ways. For example, it is not very likely that classic wedding invitations announcing a conventional ritual will be sent out through the networks of the respective parents. A whole new research field is opening up, and I hope that students will focus on these topics for their PhD research.
More generally speaking, we will be able to study who is getting married on the basis of their history and social characteristics - occupation, gender, age, with or without children - and make connections between matrimonial choices and value systems. We will be able to see if there is a real divide between those who marry and those who don’t.

Are statistics on unions sufficient for measuring the impact of the legalization of homosexual marriage?

The legalization of homosexual marriage should not just be seen from the standpoint of those who get married. For gays and lesbians, the important thing was being free to choose and to not be treated differently from heterosexual couples. The point was for homosexuality to be recognized as a lifestyle like than any other and to have the choice to get married - or not! Historically speaking, opening marriage up to same-sex couples is part of an ongoing transformation of the institution. Marriage is no longer a given, and sometimes happens after a long period of cohabitation or after the birth of two, three or four children. This contrasts sharply with the traditional model, whereby people got married before forming a couple, before having children, and even before beginning their sexual lives. Marriage has also become a possibility for homosexuals because today it can be appropriated by everyone and is less about a single and unique model of private life.

For researchers studying these questions, what is the impact of the legalization of same-sex marriage?

On the issue of homosexuality in general and same-sex couples in particular, we still have a lot to learn in terms of demography and sociology, even if research has made progress in the last 30 years.
The legal recognition of same-sex couples that began at the end of the 1990s has helped to shift the paradigm. There is now a political and social need for research in the humanities and social sciences, whereas a few years ago it was seen as "exotic". In this respect, the adoption of same-sex marriage will make things easier in that it creates a new statistical category. The hope is that the major quantitative surveys to come will have better tools to study the diversity of private lives and in particular those of same-sex couples and families.
Change is already afoot. The people responding to these major surveys have for several years been able to say they are in a same-sex or different-sex couple, which was not always the case before. INSEE’s 2011 Family and Housing survey, designed in close collaboration with INED, included the two options - homosexual and heterosexual couple - which was not the case for the 1999 study.
Another interesting transformation for research is linked to changes in the reporting of homosexuality and homosexual practices. A little less stigma is attached to them now, so they are more likely to be reported in surveys and studied.

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