Politics & Policy

Dutch Decline

Losing interest in matrimony.

To a Dutch observer of American society and politics, it all looked just a little too familiar. The long lines in front of the Massachusetts registry offices, the glare of the media spotlights, gay-marriage proponents crowing about a “historic breakthrough.” The scenes were virtually identical to those in Amsterdam three years ago, when amid much fanfare, the world’s first legal gay-marriage ceremonies were conducted by the city’s mayor. If the U.S. continues to follow the Dutch script, the next few months will see more jubilant headlines about the overwhelming demand for marriage licenses among homosexuals, a few more model gay couples getting married, and then…silence. With its aim achieved and the campaign over, gay-rights activists will simply drop the issue of marriage altogether and move on.

And what, exactly, will they have accomplished? The first legal gay wedding ceremonies in the Netherlands took place on April 1, 2001. By November 2002, however, gay-marriage enthusiasts were forced to admit that interest in this new institution was fading. Since April 2001, each quarter has brought a further decline in the number of gay marriages, falling from 2,500 in 2001 to less than 1,500 last year. As of April 2004, only 5,916 of Holland’s roughly 55,000 gay couples had tied the knot. The floodgates had been forced open by gay-marriage activists, but through them came just a trickle of mainly lesbian couples (lesbians make up only 20 percent of the homosexual community in the Netherlands, but they now make up more than half of all married homosexual couples).

It seems that so far 90 percent of Dutch homosexual couples have declined the historic opportunity to get married. This already far-from-impressive statistic gets even worse when we take into account the fact that cohabiting gays and lesbians are actually just a small minority within the larger homosexual community. Gay organizations’ own figures, which put the size of the gay community in Holland at around 1.5 million (almost 10 percent of the total Dutch population of 16 million), seem a wild exaggeration. But if accurate these figures would give the impression that with only a little bit more than one-third of 1 percent of Dutch gays and lesbians actually married, interest in marriage among homosexuals is virtually nonexistent.

A government-sponsored study on sexuality in the Netherlands among people ages 18 and older came up with a more realistic figure of 350,000 gays and lesbians. Even on this cautious estimate, however, married gays and lesbians comprise no more than 3.3 percent of the total number of adult homosexuals. By comparison, by the end of 2003, heterosexual married people made up 60 percent of the total Dutch population ages 18 and older (and 75 percent if the categories of widowed and divorced are included).

Some would say this doesn’t matter–that the minimal interest among homosexuals in getting married is itself another good reason for legalizing gay marriage. After all, if few homosexual couples get married, there’s little chance of a Trojan Horse scenario whereby gay married couples could somehow work to undermine heterosexual marriage from within. The positive version of this argument is made by Andrew Sullivan in his so-called conservative case for gay marriage. He claims that allowing gays to marry would not only not undermine marriage, it would also help strengthen an institution under threat of countercultural erosion. It would do so, he says, not just by boosting marriage statistics, but more important by presenting marriage as something to be desired, a special status worth fighting for.

If true, this would be an important argument in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Unfortunately for Sullivan (and the Netherlands), however, the Dutch experience has shown the exact opposite of what he predicts. The Trojan Horse scenario only existed in the minds of gay-marriage activists looking for a strawman to burn down. After all, no serious opponent of gay marriage has ever argued that the fact that my gay neighbor suddenly has the right to get married would make me, a heterosexual married man, want to file for divorce. But by lobbying so intensively for a change in the law, the gay-marriage campaign did contribute to a change in people’s attitude toward marriage. And there is little doubt that it has been a change for the worse.

Since the start of the Dutch gay-marriage debate–in which gay-marriage activists successfully made the case for separating civil marriage from the legal rights and duties involved with the raising of children–the percentage of Dutch babies born out of wedlock has skyrocketed. As Stanley Kurtz has also pointed out (<a href="here and here), in the 15 years since the beginning of the long march toward gay marriage, the illegitimacy rate in the Netherlands has risen from 11 percent (1989) to over 31 percent (2003).

As it turns out, 1989–the year in which gay-marriage campaigners filed their first legal challenge to the existing marriage laws–is something of a tipping point in marriage statistics as well. Before that year, both the absolute number of marriages and the marriage rate (number of marriages per 1,000 people) were on an upward trend. Since 1989, however, that upward trend has turned into a downward slope, from more than 95,000 new marriages in the peak year 1990 to just over 82,000–including 1500 gay marriages–in 2003. This equals a decline in the marriage rate per 1,000 people from 6.4 at its peak in 1990 (out of a population of under 15 million) to just 5.1 in 2003.

It is, of course, possible that these figures don’t matter to the American debate. Maybe American homosexuals, unlike their Dutch brothers and sisters, are eager to march down the aisle in record numbers. Maybe the American public will respond to the gay-marriage debate not by losing interest in marriage as an institution, but by wholeheartedly recommitting themselves to holy matrimony. And besides, maybe it’s just a coincidence that the birth of the gay-marriage movement in the Netherlands coincided with the start of the decline of the institution of marriage. Maybe–but it would be an awfully big coincidence. If Andrew Sullivan is right, and the Dutch experience simply doesn’t matter, America has nothing to worry about. But if he’s wrong, the question won’t be whether or not homosexuals are interested in getting married, it will be whether, several decades from now, Americans will still be interested.

Joshua Livestro is a columnist with Dutch political magazine Vrij Nederland and the Benelux edition of Reader’s Digest.

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