We use crude rates of marriage and/or registered partnership to compare levels and trends in union legalization in European countries that have opened possibilities of legal recognition to same-sex couples. We rely mostly on data collected and published by national statistical institutes.
3.2.1 Marriage Rates: Data and Indices
Traditionally, marriages are recorded administratively together with births and deaths and their statistics are generally published as “vital statistics”. The extension to same-sex marriages hardly modifies the processing of statistical data, except for the details of tabulations, which are limited by small numbers (Festy 2007). It may take a couple of years before the process and publication of data on same-sex marriages become routine.
Our collection of data was problematic only in Sweden, where the 2009 law characterized marriage as gender-neutral, thus abolishing any distinction between female, male and heterosexual marriages. Consequently, marriage statistics include the three types of marriages but do not identify them. Special requests had to be made to Statistics Sweden through our colleague Gunnar Andersson (Stockholm University).
The situation of registered partnership is much more diverse in the different countries. A few contrasting examples follow. In the Nordic region and the Netherlands, registered partnership was considered from the beginning as a near equivalent to marriage and the statistics were processed and published apart from those of marriage but along similar lines. In France, the procedure of “pacs” is very different from that of marriage, and so is the process followed by the data; the statistics are published by the Ministry of Justice instead of Insee and they do not benefit from the long tradition of vital statistics. In Germany, the conditions of registration vary from region to region and no statistics have ever been published at national level.
Apart from extreme cases like Germany, published data include minimum details with a distinction between male and female partnerships, which is enough for our purpose. Note that this form of registration in countries like France and the Netherlands also concerns heterosexual partners.
In some countries where marriage is open to same-sex couples, registered partnership is also an option for them. Our objective being the measurement of the frequency of union legalization, whatever its form, we should simultaneously consider data on marriage and registered partnership, with the risk of double-counting essentially couples who first registered their partnership and then transformed it into marriage. It would be necessary to identify these cases and subtract them from the total. It is possible in France, where “pacs” that are dissolved in order to marry are counted yearly. Similarly, Statistics Sweden identifies among the married those who were previously registered. We could not obtain the same information for Belgium or the Netherlands and we had to restrict our measurement of legalization to marriage frequency, which probably underestimates legal recognition slightly.
One of our main objectives is not only the analysis of the frequency of homosexual marriage or registered partnership, but also the association of this frequency with the importance of legal consequences attached to marriage or registration. We will perform the measurement of this association through correlations between yearly statistical and juridical information for a group of countries where data are available in both domains. In other words, we retain for our analysis of frequencies the countries that also provide juridical data. We will detail the latter type of information later.
The question is apparently simple: among same-sex couples, what is the proportion of those who choose to legitimize their union through marriage or registered partnership? The answer implies numbers of marriages or registered partnerships as a numerator and numbers of gay and lesbian couples as a denominator. The former has been considered above; they are readily available, at least globally, without refined breakdowns. The latter are much more problematic, so that very few reliable estimates exist and still fewer time-series that would be necessary for the production of trends.
In most censuses or very large surveys, the number of same-sex couples is grossly overestimated due to errors in the declaration or coding of sex among the different-sex couples. Let us take this oversimplified example: homosexual couples are few while heterosexual couples are many, say 1000 against 100,000; errors about sex are rare, say that one of the partners makes an error in 1 p. 100 of couples. Among same-sex couples, 10 appear wrongly as heterosexual, which impacts very little the number of different-sex couples; among heterosexual couples, 1000 are wrongly classified as homosexual, which implies an overestimate of same-sex couples by a factor of 2 (Cortina and Festy 2014).
Amendments to the questionnaires or cross-checking sex with first names may eliminate the overestimate of same-sex couples. That has been the case in France where a series of reliable estimates have been provided yearly since 2010. We will use them at a later stage. Another solution is to rely on population registers instead of censuses or very large surveys; people are characterized by their civil status, including sex or gender, rather than being questioned about it; but similarly, they are not questioned about their relation to other persons in the household and the sexual nature of the relation must be guessed. That was done for the Netherlands once; it was not repeated, so no time-series can be calculated (Steenhof and Harmsen 2004).
For the geographical coverage to be wide and for the time-series to be as long as possible, we had to rely on simpler indices: crude rates that report numbers of marriages and/or registered partnerships to total population instead of the population directly exposed to risk (i.e., same-sex couples). More precisely, gay marriages and/or registered partnerships are reported to total male population, and lesbian marriages and/or registered partnerships are reported to total female population.
The immediate meaning of crude rates is much more abstract than the meaning of refined rates, but we have good reasons to think that crude rates may provide a comparative view of levels and trends consistent with the comparative image that would be provided by refined rates. Countries we are dealing with are broadly similar in their demographic structure, for instance, in their degree of population aging, and we may suppose more generally that structural factors do not much affect comparisons based on crude rates. Nevertheless, we will develop the French case and will measure and compare trends in crude and refined rates for recent years below.
When the crude rates of a country are put on a graph for, say, 10 years, the first 2 or 3 years are generally much above any later trend. It is a classical “stock effect”: couples who had been waiting for many years to legalize their union rush into the new law to get married or registered… at last! The overview of trends in Europe is much clearer when these early rates are omitted. This is the case with the graphs shown below.
3.2.2 Trends and Levels in Crude Marriage Rates
We have constructed graphs of yearly crude rates for male couples and for female couples; we have complemented our analysis by calculating sex ratios (crude rates for female couples/crude rates for male couples). Nine countries are considered; the Nordic countries are coloured in red (Finland, Norway, Sweden), the western countries in blue (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the UK or rather England and Wales), the southern countries in green (Portugal, Slovenia). Note that the last group includes only two countries with short time-series; it will be difficult to draw firm conclusions.
Crude male rates are clearly lower in the north than in the west of Europe. Their increase—if any—is slow. Curves in the three countries are also remarkably intertwined, which points to regional homogeneity (Fig. 3.1).
Rates are clearly higher in western countries and they are also much more diverse. In Belgium and the UK they are twice as high as the Nordic rates, while the Netherlands is in an intermediate position, which is closer to the Nordic group; in all these countries rates are stable. By contrast, crude male rates have risen a lot in France, they have more than doubled in a dozen of years, they are now much higher than anywhere else. In the most recent years, they are four times higher than in Norway or Sweden.
In southern Europe, rates are low: as low as in the north for Portugal, much lower in Slovenia. Time-series are too short to speak about stability (Portugal) or rise (Slovenia).
The graph for crude female rates differs neatly from the previous one for crude male rates (Fig. 3.1).
In the Nordic countries, the rise is substantial and systematic. This is the case for the three countries, and the three curves are quite close: again, the region is homogeneous. The level is slightly lower than in Western Europe, but the distance between the two groups is much more limited for women than it is for men.
Among western countries, the relative homogeneity contrasts with the heterogeneity that characterized western male rates. France hardly differs from its neighbours, except for the most recent years, just after the introduction of marriage.
Crude female rates in the southern countries are clearly lower than anywhere else in Europe. The levels and shapes of the two curves for Portugal and Slovenia are quite similar.
The observations we considered counterintuitive for men are not visible for women: crude rates are increasing almost everywhere; rates in Nordic countries are hardly lower than those in Western Europe; France does not differ substantially from its neighbours.
The contrast between male and female crude rates is magnified by the calculation and graphical representation of sex ratios (crude female rate/crude male rate). The ratio is 1 when crude rates are equal for men and women; it is below 1 when female rates are inferior to male rates; it is over 1 when female rates are superior to male rates. There is a global movement of increase in sex ratios throughout Europe (Fig. 3.2).
In Nordic countries, ratios move rapidly from below 1 (.6 in the late 1990s) to over 1 (more than 1.6 in the 2010s). The increase is spectacular: Finnish ratios are even occasionally over 2. The up rise may have come to an end, recent ratios oscillate around high stable values (1.6–1.8). The curves of the three countries are quite close to one another, thus confirming the homogeneity of the region. Ratios in any other European country are inferior.
In Western Europe, ratios have increased much more slowly; they are also more dispersed, over 1 in the Netherlands (1.2 in 2017), under 1 in France (.8 recently), around 1 in Belgium and the UK (in fact, England and Wales).
Ratios are still lower in Portugal, despite their increase. Numbers are so small in Slovenia for gays and lesbians that their ratios are erratic.
There are huge differentials through time in Nordic countries (multiplication by 3 in less than two decades) and large gaps between countries in north, west and south of Europe. Sex ratio is a factor associated to such a large heterogeneity in time and space.
The progressive adoption of laws opening registration of partnership or marriage to same-sex couples in Nordic, and then western and southern countries (with a few exceptions like the early recognition of marriage in Spain) suggests similarities with the second demographic transition and the development of informal cohabitation as an alternative to marriage. The theory interprets the emergence of cohabitation as the consequence of a cultural reaction against traditional male breadwinner marriages (Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa 1986).
But instead of stability in a number of countries, one would have expected a gradual increase in the popularity of same-sex marriage or registered partnership everywhere, in conformity with processes of diffusion of social innovations, generally adopted first by a small minority of well-informed activists and then extended to larger circles by imitation (Nazio and Blossfeld 2003; Di Giulio and Rosina 2007). This process seems to have been, at best, unsystematic in terms of the adoption of marriage by gay and lesbian couples in each country.
More generally, it is somewhat paradoxical to compare trends and levels in same-sex marriage to those in cohabitation, an alternative to different-sex marriage. It might be more appropriate to refer same-sex to different-sex marriages. The latter offer a longer time perspective than the former for obvious reasons. Our graph starts in 1980 and evidences a global decline of heterosexual nuptiality. It is one of the main symptoms of the second demographic transition.
The decline in nuptiality together with the introduction of same-sex registered partnership has pushed a polemist to announce the end of marriage as a consequence of the legalization of gay and lesbian unions (Stanley Kurtz). But different-sex marriage rates had started decreasing well before the legal formalisation of homosexual couples, a movement initiated by Denmark in 1989. We cannot even discern an acceleration in nuptiality decline. On the contrary, crude rates in Nordic countries have gone through a remarkable reversal of trend at the end of the twentieth century, so that an unexpected rise in heterosexual nuptiality parallels the slow increase in gay marriage rates and the more rapid movement in lesbian marriages. Some analysts interpret it as a spiritual revival that temporarily contradicts the theory behind the second demographic transition.
But this is only an exception. In general, same-sex and different-sex marriage evolve in opposite directions (Fig. 3.3). The correlation with gay marriage rates is negative (r = −0,36); with lesbian marriage rates it is close to zero (r = −0,12). The absence of positive correlation between trends and levels in same-sex and different-sex marriage rates suggests that factors classically associated with the second demographic transition are not relevant for a contextual explanation of homosexual marriage rates in Europe. We will have a look at other contextual factors in the discussion of part 3.2.
France is the country with the largest increase in crude marriage rates for gays as well as lesbians. Male crude rates experience a rise from 0.1 p.1000 in 2005 to more than twice as much in 2017. Female rates follow the same pattern, but at lower levels, from 0.06 to 0.17. The gap between men and women is gradually reduced. The trend is steeper in France than anywhere else in Europe. Note a temporary decrease in 2011–2012, just before the extension of marriage to homosexuals in 2013. It may reflect a waiting behaviour of couples who preferred to run directly into marriage in 2013 rather than “pacsing” first in 2011–2012 and then switching to marriage. It may also result from a temporary deterioration of pacs registration when the procedure is partly transferred from courts to notaries.
Trends in crude rates can be due to changes in the number of gay and lesbian couples or to changes in the frequency of “marriage” among these couples. E.g., a rise in crude MM rates may result from an intensification in the formation of gay couples or an increase in the proportion of couples who legitimize their union. The disentangling of the two dimensions is only possible if reliable estimates of the numbers of gay and lesbian couples are available periodically, in the best case on a yearly basis. It is the case in France thanks to the annual rounds of census, despite classical pitfalls in this kind of data, mainly faulty declarations of sex by heterosexual couples. The number of “true” couples has been reconstituted since 2010 through the use of first names. The comparison of “true” couples and “apparent” couples in 2010–2011 has offered us the possibility of a backward estimate starting in 2005 and a complete time-series from 2005 to 2017 (Algava and Hallépée 2018).
Refined rates can be calculated and compared to crude rates. They tell a different story. From 2005 to 2017, there is hardly any rise in male rates, which went from .89 to .92, except for temporary ups and downs. The increase is slightly more important in female rates, which went from 0.89 to 1.10 and, more noticeably the frequency of lesbian marriages is continuously higher than that of gays and the gap increases between the two (Fig. 3.4).
In other words, the marked increase in French crude rates must be attributed to a rise in gay and lesbian couple formation, not to an intensification of nuptiality among these couples. Higher crude rates for men than women, sex ratios below 1, must be attributed to more numerous couples among gays than lesbians, not to the more intense nuptiality of gay couples. These conclusions, although limited to one country, will be on our mind when we interpret the association of trends and levels in crude rates with legal variables.
Referring marriages to couples opens the way to comparisons between same-sex and different-sex nuptiality. We concentrate on France in 2011, when a large survey was associated with the yearly census so as to give reliable information on couples, same-sex as well as different-sex; cohabiting and living apart partners are enumerated together (Buisson and Lapinte 2013).
A large majority of heterosexual couples were married or pacsed (77%), as compared with a minority of homosexual couples, only 47% of gay couples and 38% of lesbian couples were pacsed.
That may give the impression that different-sex couples legalize their union more frequently than same-sex. But this observation is misleading, essentially because heterosexuals have a longer history behind them, with more opportunities to marry or pacs than homosexuals.
A fair view of the propensity to pacs or marry is obtained by relating pacs or marriages in a given year (2011) to the number of unmarried and unpacsed couples, different-sex and same-sex being equally “exposed to the risk of legalization”. In these circumstances, specific rates are higher for homosexuals than heterosexuals, although the latter have the possibility to pacs OR marry while homosexuals are only entitled to pacs. Specific rates are almost similar for unpacsed gay and lesbian couples (respectively .133 and .131) and somewhat above specific rates for unpacsed and unmarried heterosexual couples (.098).
The French case brings two elements into the discussion: couples’ nuptiality plays little role in the development of same-sex crude marriage rates and it is much higher than heterosexual nuptiality. These observations cannot be extended to other countries—France is also characterized by very high crude marriage rates, especially among gays—but they do confirm that trends and levels in same-sex and different-sex marriage depend on different determinants and react independently of one another. In particular, the factors associated with the second demographic transition, which are closely related to Ron Inglehart’s concept of “post-materialism”, are relevant for heterosexual marriage decline, but are probably useless to explain homosexual nuptiality.