Gay Marriage Rulings May Change LGBT Geography

Will LGBT Americans move to states that extend federal benefits?

Is the geography of LGBT America poised for a shakeup?

The U.S. Supreme Court took two big steps toward bolstering gay marriage on Wednesday, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act—paving the way for federal marriage benefits for gay couples—and reintroducing gay marriage in California, the most populous state.

The rulings may wind up influencing where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people live and work in the United States.

There are approximately 650,000 same-sex couples living in shared households in the United States, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that focuses on sexual orientation, gender identity, law, and policy. Prior to Wednesday's ruling, 22 percent of those couples lived in states where gay couples could legally marry.

With the addition of California, 30 percent of Americans now live in states with legalized gay marriage, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights group.

Married same-sex couples who live in states where marriage is legally recognized will immediately receive some federal benefits.

What remains unknown, however, is how the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages in states where the marriage of same-sex couples is not legal. And that X factor could impact LGBT demographics.

"If the federal government says we're going to recognize marriages but only in states where marriage is already legally recognized, that could create economic incentives that could substantially motivate couples to move," said Gary Gates, a UCLA scholar who conducted the first significant research study of gay and lesbian demographics using U.S. census data.

There are currently 12 states in the U.S. (plus the District of Columbia) where marriage among same-sex couples is legally recognized. Seven additional states provide domestic partnerships or civil unions for couples.

In all 19 of those states, same-sex couples have state-law protections that are not available in states where marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships are off the books or are officially prohibited, including by state constitutional amendments in many places.

Wednesday's ruling extends federal benefits to gay couples who are married—but not to gay couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships. That means couples in states like New Jersey and Illinois will not receive the federal benefits bestowed on married couples in Massachusetts and Maryland.

"Today's ruling that the federal government will recognize the lawful marriages of same-sex couples will have the effect of making civil unions and domestic partnerships vastly more unequal to marriages," said David Codell, legal director of the Williams Institute.

Reasons for Movement

How the federal government will treat lawfully married same-sex couples living in states that don't recognize marriage is now a question for the Obama Administration.

A difference in federal protections might sway gay couples' decisions on where to live.

"There will really be a two-tiered system in place if same-sex couples in the states where marriage is recognized get a set of federal benefits that couples would not get in other states," Gates said.

There has been limited evidence that LGBT mobility patterns are affected by the desire to move to more LGBT-friendly areas.

What we do know is based on data from Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage. According to 2005-2007 data from the American Community Survey, same-sex couples were about twice as likely to move to Massachusetts as different-sex couples.

But those data are based on a tiny number of couples (less than 500), and without surveying the couples themselves, it's impossible to say what factors influenced their decision to move.

Why Couples Move

Outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, hundreds of gay marriage supporters stood outside as the decision was announced. Some said that marriage laws do have an impact on deciding where they live, while others played down such an effect.

"If the option existed between a state that had marriage equality and a state that didn't, I would obviously move to the state that has it," said Abbe Klezer, a law student in West Virginia. "But I'm happy in West Virginia and I think it's getting better."

UCLA's Gates says that the vast majority of people in the U.S. stay put unless they have economic reasons to move. Wednesday's ruling increases economic incentives for gay couples in states where gay marriage is legal.

Benefits that gay married couples will now receive include Social Security survivor benefits and a federal estate tax break. If one spouse sells land to another, the capital gains tax will not apply. And same-sex married couples will now be eligible to receive COBRA benefits.

"There was a sense after Iowa passed marriage, that Iowa was going to be the San Francisco of the Midwest, as if all LGBT people in the Midwest have the ability to just pick up and move," he said, referring to Iowa's legalization of gay unions in 2009. "That didn't happen."

Instead, he said, the nation's LGBT population has become more evenly distributed. A study released last February showed that most states have LGBT populations that are close to the nationwide numbers. The study also found that states with higher LGBT populations tend to have stricter anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

After Wednesday's high court decisions, states that have civil unions and domestic partnerships might think about converting those to marriage, said Gates, so gay couples can receive federal benefits.

"In the past, the difference between civil unions and marriage was about status and dignity," said Gates. "Now, if marriages are recognized by the federal government, we're talking about a difference in federal protection."

The ruling may have more implications for young people, said Alison Delpercio, who works at the HRC.

She pointed to a survey of young people conducted by the HRC, which asked, among other things, whether LGBT teenagers thought they could eventually be happy.

Eighty-three percent said yes. But if told they would be consigned to saying in their current town or city, the figure dropped to 49 percent.

That was true for Kyser Pogue, who was standing outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning. He made his way from northern Florida to Washington, D.C., in 1996 to attend Howard University. He never left.

"The first reason I came to Washington, D.C., was because I was attending school here," he said. "But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'Yes! This is a place where I can be myself.'"

Melody Kramer is on Twitter.

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