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Does Same-Sex Marriage Spell the End of LGBT ‘Community’?

A new study of same-sex couples in Massachusetts shows ‘a widely shared belief that since gaining the right to marry there was less need to organize for rights and acceptance.’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

“Within a generation or so, marriage will mean the end of gay culture as we know it.”

That was author and Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch’s bold prediction in his 2004 book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America—but so far, it’s been a difficult proposition to test. Same-sex marriage has only been legal nationwide since 2015—and three years is far from being “a generation.”

Married and unmarried participants alike articulated a pervasive feeling that having access to legal marriage had greatly diminished the sense of need that had fueled organized LGBQ community in the past.

But same-sex marriage has been legal in the state of Massachusetts for over 14 years now—and that’s where visiting Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Abigail Ocobock chose to produce a pioneering study, published last month in the Journal of Marriage and Family, that examines the impact of legal marriage on LGBT community life.

“Married and unmarried participants alike articulated a pervasive feeling that having access to legal marriage had greatly diminished the sense of need that had fueled organized LGBQ community in the past,” the study concludes. (Ocobock uses the acronym LGBQ in her study rather than LGBT because although it was open to transgender people, too few participated for her "to be able to speak to their experiences," she tells The Daily Beast.)

In interviews conducted in 2012 and 2013 with 116 married and unmarried people in Massachusetts who were in same-sex relationships, Ocobock discovered “a widely shared belief that since gaining the right to marry there was less need to organize for rights and acceptance,” as the study notes.

Additionally, interviewees indicated that because they now felt “more welcome and safe” in mainstream settings following the legalization of same-sex marriage, there was now “less need” to even “group together based on sexual orientation.”

“I think we feel much more [of a] sense of ownership and belonging here now, more a part of the cultural fabric of Massachusetts,” one married man said in an interview for the study.

In short, access to legal marriage does indeed change life for people who are in same-sex relationships. This marital access, as Ocobock told The Daily Beast, “reduce[s]” the perceived necessity of more “organized” forms of community life—at least in this early look at the Massachusetts context.

Although Ocobock’s study may be initial—it is, as the abstract notes, “the first systematic data on the relationship between legal marriage and LGBQ community life”—it does raise some powerful and provocative questions: Is community a price worth paying for marriage? And will marriage in its modern form have the same impact on LGBT culture that it has had on straight culture?

For her part, Ocobock doesn’t want to sound the death knell for gay culture just yet.

“I don’t think we should be saying it’s the end of gay community as we know it right now, but it’s changing for sure, and marriage certainly played a role in that,” she tells The Daily Beast.

There are two important caveats about the study to note: First, the majority of her participants, Ocobock tells The Daily Beast, “definitely still wanted to seek out people that they said were like them, so they felt some connection with people based on sexual identity”—they just sought out those people out in a different way.

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“The difference was they didn’t feel so much need to go to an LGBQ event or activity to find those people—that other people like you just became more readily accessible to you in your everyday life,” Ocobock notes.

The second caveat is that the interviewees haven’t abandoned LGBT organizations altogether.

“They might have felt less need for organized community but they still took part in it,” Ocobock tells The Daily Beast. “With some sort of semi-regularity, they were still going to LGBTQ events or activities or gay-owned venues at least once every few months—the vast majority of my participants were.”

Those semi-frequent check-ins may in part be due to the fact that study participants didn’t feel unqualified joy about the changes that marriage has wrought on community.

“There was definitely some sort of sadness and nostalgia for what you lose in that process,” Ocobock says, noting that although they spoke “uniformly positively” about marriage, many participants missed the community building of yesteryear.

Pretty much anywhere you go, you’re going to see other gay people, which is great, but I admit that there is a little bit of nostalgia for that in community kind of feeling, where if you were in a restaurant and there was another lesbian or gay couple, you would probably say hello.

As one married woman said in an interview for the study: “Pretty much anywhere you go, you’re going to see other gay people, which is great, but I admit that there is a little bit of nostalgia for that in community kind of feeling, where if you were in a restaurant and there was another lesbian or gay couple, you would probably say hello, and now you might but you might not because there’s going to be lesbians and gay men everywhere.”

In these and other comments, Ocobock detected a “sense of loss” for prior “community ties” that are “now less often sought and less easily achieved.”

A handful of participants seemed to believe that the “fight for additional acceptance,” as the study phrases it, is now over, even criticizing LGBT people who continued to push for social change—but the “majority of participants did not echo [those] kinds of unqualified sentiments.”

Still, those sentiments, however sparsely expressed, seem to confirm the worst fears of LGBT advocates like Timothy Stewart-Winter, who after the 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court decision wrote a New York Times op-ed called “The Price of Gay Marriage” in which he worried that some would now “proclaim a premature victory, overlooking those of us who are still left out.”

“Will even a fraction of the energy and money that have been poured into the marriage fight be available to transgender people, homeless teenagers, victims of job discrimination, lesbian and gay refugees and asylum seekers, isolated gay elderly or other vulnerable members of our community?” Stewart-Winter wondered.

Indeed, the legalization of same-sex marriage has not made anti-LGBT employment discrimination illegal in every state, nor did it make the country friendly to transgender people overnight.

To the extent that certain kinds of organized community life seem necessary to advocate for basic rights, it could be worrisome that some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people in Massachusetts already want to pump the brakes.

But the overall feeling of acceptance and inclusion that most of Ocobock’s participants felt could also be cause for celebration.

For Jonathan Rauch, the overall thrust of Ocobock’s study is “wonderful news,” as he writes in an email to The Daily Beast, noting, however, that it has a relatively small sample size and draws its conclusions from subjective, self-reported data.

Rauch, who is openly gay and Jewish, sees a parallel between the state of the Jewish community in the United States and the direction in which the LGBT community seems headed post-Obergefell.

“[The study] implies that gay people are getting to where American Jews have been for several generations,” he writes. “Yes, some Jews complain about intermarrying, erosion of cultural traditions, increase of secularism, Jews with Christmas trees, and the like.”

For gay people to feel normal and accepted, and thus able to live less as a self-conscious minority and more as whoever they feel themselves to be, represents a degree of freedom I didn’t think I’d live to see.

But just like “no one would go back to the heyday of anti-Semitism in the U.S. (much less in Europe!)”, Rauch argues, the oppression of the past isn’t worth the intense kinds of community life that it created.

“Normalization reduces the need for solidarity and subcultures, and that’s a cost, but one worth paying,” he maintains, adding, “For gay people to feel normal and accepted, and thus able to live less as a self-conscious minority and more as whoever they feel themselves to be, represents a degree of freedom I didn’t think I’d live to see.”

But there are reasons to expect that, for the time being, no matter how “normal and accepted” some people in same-sex relationships may feel, marriage won’t have quite the same effects that it has had on straight people—at least for now.

Sociologically speaking, Ocobock notes, marriage has been seen as a “greedy institution” based on the way in which heterosexual couples tend to withdraw from communities and friend groups as they get married and have children.

But because the current generation of same-sex couples are likely to have been together longer before tying the knot—and are then less likely to have any, or as many, children as their straight counterparts—the traditional wisdom about the “greediness” of marriage may not apply.

To this point, Ocobock found that it wasn’t marital status that affected whether or not her participants felt a reduced need for organized LGBT community but “marital access,” or the mere availability of legal marriage that had effected this change.

In other words, it wasn’t the case that the married participants in the study were withdrawing from community in the same ways or with the same time that straight couples do. (That correlation between marital status and community disengagement, the study notes, was “minimal and uneven.”) The legalization of marriage, however, seems to have had important social effects benefiting both married and unmarried people with same-sex partners in Massachusetts.

“Gaining that access to legal marriage really changed how people felt in terms of social inclusion and belonging—and that seemed to reduce their sense of need for community,” Ocobock tells The Daily Beast.

Ocobock wants to see more research in this area on a national—and more nationally representative—level. She warns in the study itself that the Massachusetts participants were mostly white, and that “the racial and class privilege of most participants likely influenced their perception that legal marriage had catalyze social inclusion in broader (heterosexual) communities.”

I don’t think we know yet how gay culture will evolve. Same-sex marriage is still new. The generation that grew up with it has yet to come of age.

The impact of legal same-sex marriage likely looks much different in, say, Mississippi than it does in Massachusetts.

And it is, as Rauch is careful to point out, still too early to tell how same-sex marriage will change the community. Ocobock’s study offers an important early glimpse at some possible points of transformation, but this is the kind of change that will take decades to fully come into focus.

“I don’t think we know yet how gay culture will evolve,” Rauch writes to The Daily Beast. “Same-sex marriage is still new. The generation that grew up with it has yet to come of age. We may see entirely new institutions and cultural norms. Stay tuned!”