Same-sex marriages have declined in N.H. and neighboring states

  • Supporters watch as Gov. John Lynch, D-N.H., signs gay marriage into law at the State house in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, June 3, 2009.(AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 2/9/2019 2:12:38 PM

Eight years after New Hampshire became one of the early states to legalize same-sex marriage, the institution seems to be in something of a slump: The number of same-sex marriages in the state has fallen by 50 percent since 2013, declining in four out of the last five years.

And it’s not just absolute numbers that are slipping: The relative popularity is also down. Last year, same-sex weddings made up about 3 percent of all weddings in the state, whereas back in 2013 they made up 6.2 percent of weddings.

“I would never have guessed,” said Carrie Steeves, event coordinator for Stonevillage Inn in Eaton, which hosts wedding ceremonies of all types, when alerted of this trend. “It hasn’t changed that we’ve noticed.”

New Hampshire isn’t alone, however. Vermont had seen a very similar decline, as has Massachusetts to an extent.

So what’s happening?

Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass-Amherst and a senior scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA, who has studied the issue, says the most likely explanation is an easing of pent-up demand along with a declining need for same-sex couples in other states to come here for weddings, spurred by changes in federal law that made marriage possible or more valuable.

But she admits that’s something of a guess, partly because so few places have offered same-sex marriage long enough for trends to be developed. “You’re never going to be able to say: this much of it was the pent-up demand, this much was the arrival of federal benefits, this much is new couples,” she said. “It’s just very hard to say.”

An early surge

In 2010, New Hampshire became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, at a time when more than two dozen states had enacted laws or constitutional amendments against the practice and Congress had passed the Defense Of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of gay marriage.

New Hampshire followed Massachusetts, which was the first state to legalize the marriage back in 2004, and Vermont, which in 2009 became the first state to legalize it through legislation rather than a referendum.

Not surprisingly, there was a surge of interest in the weddings in New Hampshire, both from couples who already had a civil union, which had been legal in New Hampshire for two years, and from those who had never had any legal ties.

The first full year of legalization, a whopping 10.2 percent of all marriages in the state were same-sex: 987 of them, out of 8,653 total marriages. The following year, 2011, was almost as busy, with 9 percent of all marriages going to same-sex couples.

“These were the early adopters,” Badgett said. “We were getting people from other states coming to get married.”

In 2012, numbers cooled off but they jumped again in 2013, prodded by the Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, which declared the heart of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional and led to renewed interest in same-sex vows.

Since then, however, the number of same-sex marriages in New Hampshire has fallen almost every year, declining from 566 in 2013 to 280 last year, even as the number of opposite-sex marriages has stayed level, hovering right around 9,000. The only exception was 2017, but even then, numbers were virtually level, increasing by just nine from the year before.

Mary Bonauto, director of the Civil Rights Project for GLAD, a long-time advocacy group for gay rights, said in an email response that the decline is a reflection of how gay marriage has become routine.

“To see those numbers lessen over time is also no surprise, as it’s leveling out to a normal situation where some number of same-sex couples will decide to marry in any given year. It’s now an option to choose (or not) on their own timetable, as it has always been for different-sex couples,” Bonauto wrote.

Over in Vermont, the story is almost exactly the same. A full 16 percent of all marriages in that state were same-sex in 2010, the first full year they were available, and after a bit of a decline, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 sent them back up to the same level.

But since then, the numbers have fallen, sometimes sharply, from 656 in 2014 to just 217 last year, which was 4.5 percent of all marriages in Vermont.

Things are also similar in Massachusetts. The number of same-sex marriages in the Bay State also declined after an initial burst, with a short-lived boost from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, although the decline has not been as abrupt. The state has not compiled the data for 2017 or 2018 yet, but back in 2016, about 5.2 percent of all marriages were between members of the same gender, the same percentage in 2012, one year before the Supreme Court boost.

Leveling out?

One question that arises, of course, is whether the decline in the number of same-sex weddings in New Hampshire will continue.

Possibly not. If same-sex and opposite-sex couples have the same level of interest in marrying, then it seems likely that the figures are roughly stable, since they seem to reflect the general population.

Estimating percentages of gay couples in any region is difficult, and is based on surveys and answers to Census questionnaires.

“It’ll be somewhere in that range, I’d say – 3 to 5 percent,” said Badgett of UMass-Amherst.

However, it’s not at all clear that gay and lesbian couples do have the same level of interest in marrying that opposite-sex couples do.

It might be that the pressure to marry is greater for men and women living together because of historical norms, or it might be that the pressure to marry is greater for same-sex couples because their community has fought so hard for the right.

So we’ll have to see what happens in the future.

There is, by the way, one interesting difference between Massachusetts and New Hampshire on this topic: Gender ratios.

In Massachusetts, nearly half of same-sex marriages are between two men, whereas in New Hampshire, only one-third of them are. In most years in Massachusetts, about 45 percent of the marriages involve two men but in New Hampshire, the percentage of male-male marriages has never been higher than 37 percent. Vermont didn’t break down its marriage data by gender.

Why the difference? Perhaps it’s our relative shortage of big-city life.

“Coupled women tend to live in less urban areas, while men opt for bigger cities,” is how the online sociology publication Contexts put it in an article titled “Lesbian geographies.”

“We do not have a good grasp on why this happens,” the article said, speculating that “cultural cues” may play a role. “Lesbians who perform masculinity in rural environments (by working hard labor or acting tough, for example) are not as stigmatized as effeminate gay men. This makes rural contexts safer and more inviting for women.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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