The United States may have reached the beginning of the end of the gay marriage debates. The Supreme Court decided to hear two gay marriage cases on Friday — United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry — bringing the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 into the spotlight.
Gary Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA and co-author of The Gay & Lesbian Atlas, has conducted extensive research on the geography of the gay and lesbian population in the country. Gates' work on gay communities shaped my own thinking on the relationship between diversity and economic development. In 2001, we co-authored a report [PDF] for the Brookings Institution outlining our findings on the relationship between tolerance (measured by his "Gay Index" measure) and technology development.
In an email conversation, he explained what the results of these hearings (which aren't expected to be argued until March) could mean for national and local policy.
Given the gains the LGBT community has made over the past few years and the results of the election in November, do you think the country is ready for a definitive answer on gay marriage?
By all evidence, the country is right now about 50/50 on this issue with the trend clearly moving toward support for marriage equality. In the exit polling data from this past election, 49 percent of voters thought that marriage for same-sex couples should be legal in their state, 46 percent thought it should not. Given this relatively even split, a "definitive answer" will likely be very controversial for a large portion of the country, regardless of what the answer might be.
Demographically though, support for marriage equality and LGBT rights will likely continue on an upward trajectory. The electorate this year was younger and more female, both groups with substantially higher support for LGBT rights. Recent polling has also shown rapidly changing (and increasing) support for marriage equality among racial and ethnic minorities, who are a younger demographic in the United States and are constituting an increasing portion of both the population and the electorate.
Your 2004 Gay & Lesbian Atlas identified the major LGBT communities across the country. These rulings have the potential to leave the matter up to the states, essentially continuing a status quo. If this happens, how will these communities be affected?
It will likely mean that states with larger and more visible LGBT populations will continue to move forward on marriage rights. Many of these states already have civil unions and registered domestic partnerships available for same-sex couples. We are likely to see renewed efforts to bring marriage for same-sex couples to states like Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, Delaware, Illinois, and New Jersey.
There are states with large and visible LGBT populations where marriage equality may present a more formidable challenge. Had LGBT voters not cast their ballots in Ohio and Florida, Governor Romney would have won those states. If the LGBT vote in Virginia had been less lopsided in President Obama's favor and more evenly split between the two candidates, Governor Romney would have also won that state. All three states have sufficiently large LGBT populations to influence a close election, but none have sexual orientation or gender identity anti-discrimination laws nor any relationship recognition rights for same-sex couples.
Our Brookings study, "Technology and Tolerance," as well as my own research has found that the gay community is an indicator of a place's openness and tolerance to new ideas and types of people — "a canary in a coal mine" so to speak — which is closely correlated with technological innovation and economic development. For places with strong LGBT communities, what economic impact could these rulings have?
Research from the Williams Institute shows that marriage equality generates positive economic impacts on cities and states through more spending on weddings. Obviously, that impact is more noticeable at the outset of marriage equality, as there is a pent up demand for weddings among same-sex couples that brings a spike in weddings at the outset of marriage equality.
If the court rulings continue the status quo of variation in relationship recognition and tax treatment of same-sex couples, this creates ongoing economic challenges for companies, especially those that cross state and national borders. It becomes increasingly complex and expensive for companies to treat their LGBT employees, especially those with same-sex partners, equally. States that make it difficult to provide benefits for same-sex couples and their families create a business climate that puts companies at a disadvantage in attracting and retaining young, create, and entrepreneurial talent.
It is no coincidence that in advance of the recent vote in Washington state, major corporate icons like Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks all publicly supported marriage rights for same-sex couples. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife personally contributed $2.5 million to the campaign. In this case, corporations expressed a sentiment that the "right" thing to do was also the profitable thing to do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Top image: Stephen Lam/Reuters