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A phenomenological investigation of same-sex marriage.

ABSTRACT: Same-sex marriage was first legalized in the Netherlands in 2001, and now court rulings have legalized it in certain regions of Canada and the United States. What is the experience of gay and lesbian individuals who have married? This phenomenological study is based on interviews with 43 individuals, representing 22 married or soon-to-be-married couples living on three continents. The fight for same-sex marriage is about honouring the feelings that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals have for their partners, and it also highlights the continuing struggle experienced by LGBT persons who demand equal rights, both legally and psychosocially. Same-sex marriage is here to stay, and increasing our understanding of this phenomenon is an important new area of social science research.

Key words: Same-sex marriage Homosexual relationships Male homosexuality Female homosexuality Phenomenology


Love and romance, intimacy, and lifelong vows of commitment and partnership could never be part of homosexuality, it was mistakenly believed. Now a generation of people in many countries, making their lives together as partners in life, have proved this bias to be wrong. This false conception of homosexuality in the past reduced the whole person and his or her goals and aspirations to nothing more than sex, denying all of the full and loving person as well as his or her creativity, civility, and spirituality (Herdt, 1997, p. 178).

The legalization of same-sex marriage is a recent societal development that is considered highly controversial by many heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals alike (Yep, Lovaas, & Elia, 2003). Polls taken in Canada have shown its residents to be nearly 50 percent in favour of legalized same-sex marriage (Mofina, 2003), while a recent American poll conducted by ABC News has suggested less support for its legalization in the U.S. (i.e., 55 percent against) (Sussman, 2004). Within the LGBT community, those who support the institution of marriage for same-sex couples are referred to as having an assimilationist position, while those who oppose it are said to subscribe to a radical position (Yep et al., 2003).

Regardless of one's views on the subject, "Queer marriage has come to Canada to stay" (Lahey & Alderson, 2004, p. 99). On December 9, 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that same-sex marriage is in accord with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the legal document that protects human rights for all Canadians. As marriage in Canada falls under federal jurisdiction (Lahey & Alderson, 2004), anticipated legislation from Parliament will have an important impact on whether the precedents on same-sex marriage already set by six provinces and one territory in Canada (Table 1) will be affirmed nationally.

The situation in the United States is more complicated. The status of same-sex marriage there will require legal reform to both state and national laws and constitutions. Consequently, the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. will require a much longer process. Nonetheless, the U.S. has become the fourth country on earth, albeit only within the state of Massachusetts, to legalize same-sex marriage. The full chronology of legal same-sex marriage to date is shown in Table 1.

Given the recency of these legal reforms, little is known about same-sex couples who choose to marry. Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam's (2004) work is one of the first quantitative studies to compare gay and lesbian individuals (n = 212 women, 193 men) who have had civil unions--a state recognized same-sex contract similar to marriage--in Vermont during the first year they became available there (i.e., 2000) with both heterosexuals and other gays and lesbians. One comparison group consisted of 166 lesbians and 72 gay men who were part of their friendship circles who had not chosen to have a civil union. Comparisons were also made between the civil-union couples and their heterosexually married siblings and their spouses (n = 219 women, 193 men). The researchers found that the heterosexually married couples had been together longer and had established more traditional division of labour and child care duties compared to the lesbian and gay couples who had a civil union. The results also indicated "that legalized same-sex relationships are related to visibility of same-sex couples to their families and the general public" (Solomon et al., p. 275).

How same-sex marriage will affect heterosexuals' views and attitudes toward the LGBT community remains uncertain, although anecdotal comments from some activists in Denmark suggest that gay men and lesbians have become integrated into Danish society, and that they are now perceived there as "normal" (Landsforeningen, as cited in Soland, 1998). Denmark has the longest history of legalizing same-sex relationships, following their enactment of registered domestic partnerships (RDPs) in 1989. RDPs in Denmark are similar to civil unions in Vermont: both, however, are different from marriage--neither are considered a marriage, and neither require a divorce to end the couple's legal contract with each other. In effect, both RDPs and civil unions create a separate system for LBGT individuals when compared to heterosexual marriage. Quoting from a judge who rendered the court decision regarding the enactment of same-sex marriage legislation in Massachusetts, "The history o four nation [the U.S.] has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal" (Lahey & Alderson, 2004, p. 63).

The possibility remains that societal attitudes toward LGBT individuals in general and same-sex marriage in particular will become more liberal with the passage of time. As LGBT persons elect to become more visible and as same-sex marriage continues to exist as a social institution, greater respect for the committed relationships of LGBT individuals may occur, thereby diminishing outward signs of homophobia and homonegativity.

There are many studies reported in the published literature to date that describe gay and lesbian committed relationships (Bohan, 1996; Bryant & Demian, 1994; Kurdek, 1995; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1986; McKirnan & Peterson, 1989; Peplau, 1993; Smith & Brown, 1997). Research by Peplau and Cochran (1990) also revealed that there is little difference between heterosexual marriage and committed gay relationships. Since these accounts of committed gay and lesbian relationships were published, same-sex marriage has arisen on the LGBT scene, and we know little about how these couples construct their relationships within the new context of marriage, an institution traditionally reserved for heterosexual couples. The main research question underlying the current qualitative study is, "What is your experience of being in a same-sex marriage?"



Twenty-one same-sex couples were interviewed and one gay man alone (his spouse was unavailable for the interview). Consequently, the sample consisted of 43 individuals, representing 9 lesbian couples and 13 gay male couples. Their ages ranged from 30 to 66 (mean = 46.3). Although most of the couples were legally married at the time of their interview (n = 13 couples), eight couples were soon to get married and one couple in Amsterdam was united in a registered domestic partnership (note: these legal contracts predated same-sex marriage in the Netherlands). Table 2 provides further demographic information on the participants.

The author received e-mail addresses and telephone numbers for 12 of the couples interviewed from Kathleen Lahey, co-author of Same-Sex Marriage: The Personal and the Political. Dr. Lahey knew many of these couples personally, and legally represented three couples in British Columbia during the court battles there for same-sex marriage. Each of these 12 couples were involved to a greater or lesser extent in fighting the legal battle for same-sex marriage in either Canada or the U.S. Their complete stories, along with four of the other couples interviewed, are contained in Lahey and Alderson (2004). Six couples made contact with the author directly after Egale Canada, a national organization that advances equality for LGBT individuals, forwarded an e-mail sent to them requesting participation from same-sex married couples in Canada. The two couples living in Amsterdam were recruited from a contact the author had there. One of the interviewees introduced the author to the Hong Kong couple, gay activists themselves in Hong Kong. They travelled to Toronto to get married. Finally, the couple together for 47 years was suggested to the author while talking to a stranger in a coffee shop.


Phenomenology was chosen as the qualitative approach in this research. Phenomenology is focused on individuals' meaning making as the quintessential element of the human experience (Patton, 2002). The important findings derived from phenomenology are an understanding of a phenomenon as seen through the eyes of those who have experienced it. Phenomenological inquiry holds the assumption that there is an essence or essences to shared experience (Patton, 2002).

Prior to each interview, the participants were mailed a two-page biographical questionnaire, the informed consent form, and a page containing 16 sample interview questions. The study protocol was approved by the University of Calgary's Conjoint Ethics Board. All names associated with quotes from participants are pseudonyms. The interviews in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and the Netherlands were done in person. Telephone interviews took place for couples living in Manitoba, the Maritimes, and the United States. The couple from Hong Kong were interviewed live while the author was in Toronto.

The interviews occurred in August, September, and October, 2003. Each began with the initial question, "I want to understand your experience of being in a same-sex marriage. I am looking for a rich and detailed exploration of what this has been like for the two of you." The interview then continued as an informal conversational interview (Moustakas, 1990) until the phenomenon had been thoroughly discussed. At that point, a list of 35 questions was reviewed and, where necessary, further questions asked to ensure that all of the questions were answered during the interview. Table 3 lists the 16 sample interview questions mailed to each participant. The taped interviews were each between 45 minutes and three hours in length.

The data analysis in phenomenology generally consists of analyzing the interview transcripts for common elements or themes (Creswell, 1998; Polkinghorne, 1989). Secondly, the researcher provides an accurate and clear description of the experience, sometimes known as a composite description (Creswell, 1998) or summary (Hycner, 1999).

Another essential component of phenomenological inquiry is to bracket (Van Manen, 1990) the researcher's own experience of the phenomenon under investigation. In this way, the reader can ascertain the extent of bias that may have occurred while conducting the interviews, the analyses, and the final report of the research. What follows is the author's bracketing of his experience.


I had given very little thought to same-sex marriage before my publisher asked me if I would consider co-authoring a book on the subject. Within two days, we had a book deal arranged. I soon departed for Amsterdam and Vancouver.

I was raised to believe, as did most late baby boomers (I am 48-years-old), that we would someday marry and possibly have children. I followed this path and married heterosexually in 1985. Soon after my second child was born, my repression and denial of 36 years was shattered when I found myself falling in love romantically with two men simultaneously. Remaining faithful to the institution of marriage, I remained monogamous until I came out to my wife (now ex-wife) a few months later.

I believe in marriage. I benefited enormously from the heterosexual privilege marriage with two children brought to me. Wherever we travelled, we were always given the highest respect for fitting in to the dream that every country had for us. We were a family, and no one questioned this.

Since I came out and became part of my partner's life for the past eight years, I have been questioned. Recently at an airline lounge in a Canadian airport, I was told I could only enter if I paid $20.00 as I was considered a guest of my partner, not a partner of my partner. I was told a partner was someone who was family.

These words have resonated within me ever since. My relationship to the experience of same-sex marriage is that I believe in the institution of marriage, and I believe we ought to have the right to marry someone we love and with whom we desire a lasting bond. I particularly believe that marriage is designed to protect an institution that I believe in more than marriage itself: the institution of family. I learned from my Filipina ex-wife that family can be a very inclusive concept. What matters most is that the commitment is real, and that the love is continually worked at as infatuation transforms into something more endearing. I still love my ex-wife, and she is still family. But so is my partner of eight years.

I chose not to read anything about same-sex marriage before writing my section of the book (Lahey & Alderson, 2004). I wanted to be tabula rosa as much as possible, but as I have described here, the reader must understand that I was biased insofar as I believed in and supported 100 percent the phenomenon I was studying.


The taped interviews were transcribed verbatim by four experienced transcribers, paid hourly. A content analysis (Patton, 2002) of the transcripts then occurred in the following manner. Eleven undergraduate students were provided three hours of training regarding content analysis, including work with identical practice documents to increase interrater reliability. Before the analyses of actual transcripts began, all students reached agreement in coding to a minimum of 90 percent accuracy. The students and myself then worked with the 22 transcripts until all of them had been coded. All transcripts were coded line-by-line. Following the analyses, the author organized the content into categories and themes.


The categories and themes that emerged from the analyses are listed in Table 4. In the results that follow, each theme is first described followed by one or more exemplars from the actual interview transcripts. All names are pseudonyms. Square brackets show where I have added words to increase clarity. For the sake of brevity I will sometimes use the word "gay" to be inclusive of both genders.


Same-Sex Attraction

At some point along the path to finding themselves, the participants discovered that their attractions gravitated more toward their own gender.
 I was always uncomfortable in high school
 around the locker room and things like that
 cause I was attracted to men and didn't really
 know what that meant but that it didn't feel
 right. It wasn't what I had been brought up
 to believe and not that my parents were that
 religious, we didn't go to church, I was
 brought up Anglican, but, um, I had no one
 else to talk to about it, my feelings, so you
 just sort of bottled that up and I did until I
 was 37 (Jason, age 41).

Coming Out to Self (Self-Identification)

Many participants mentioned that it took a lot of soul searching to finally come out as gay or lesbian. They were thus able to give voice to feelings of being different for a very long time.
 I have been out for quite some time: 11 years.
 All my life I have known that I was different
 even through public school, as early as far
 back as I can remember, grade three. And I
 am looking at the girls in class instead of the
 boys in the class. You know, and I always
 felt different (Sandy, age 37).

Internalized Homophobia and Other Feelings The participants internalized our culture's mores and values along with everyone else. They struggled with overcoming internalized homophobia, fear, anger, guilt, shame, and self-doubt. The path toward self-acceptance has been difficult for many because of the continuing defamation of character that has systematically been launched against them. Some people in society hate them without knowing them, while others turn a blind eye to that which they don't understand. Either way, the participants grew up in a world that denigrated their deepest feelings of passion and love for other human beings of the same gender.
 And we got this substitute gym teacher who
 in retrospect was a dyke. I didn't know that
 the n, I just knew that she was different and
 that I connected with her in some way
 although I had never said a private word to
 her. And she was only at the school for like
 a week or two weeks or something right. And
 the last day she was there I went to the school
 to talk to her and I stood outside the gym
 teacher's door with tears streaming down my
 face, desperate to knock because she would
 save my life. That's all I could think was that
 she would save my life. But, I couldn't do it
 and I went home and I almost killed myself
 that day (Ann, age 49).

 You have to remember in 1981 when we met,
 most gay men and women were horribly in
 the closet. The pain of the closet was
 palpable. People were afraid to come out of
 the closet here in Toronto, they were afraid
 of their jobs. They were afraid their parents
 and family would find out. The amount of
 internalized homophobia was palpable
 (Sheldon, age 55).

Disclosing to Others

For many participants, disclosing to others was their way of being honest and their way of trying to garner support. It was difficult for them to describe the anguish they felt when some people they love were shocked, horrified, disgraced, or humiliated when they came out to them.
 Also too, you know, you are going to get
 rejection. It's going to happen. There's is no
 way to--and you may not realize that that
 rejection is going to be forthcoming until all
 of a sudden it has slammed you upside the
 head. Some of the most accepting people and
 the most loving people that you thought were
 on your side are doing an about face. But we
 had to deal with that. Of course it hurts. You
 do your cry or whatever it is you've got to and
 you deal with it. And then you have to realize
 that it's them, it's not you (Mary, age 34).

External Homophobia, Public Affection, and Consequences

Sometimes the participants felt alone in a jungle of hostility. Although it is common to see heterosexual couples walk hand-in-hand in public, and occasionally kiss each other as well, most of the participants are too afraid of others' potential reaction to do the same. Their natural tendencies to show affection were betrayed by fear of repercussion. They are well aware that abuse toward gay people, whether verbal or physical, remains prevalent.
 Well, now having said that, I have a
 discomfort in terms of I don't want to make
 others uncomfortable [regarding holding
 hands in public]. Which I know it is my own
 issue but I am working on changing that
 (Dana, age 32).

 You know it wasn't so long ago that there
 was a lesbian couple camping in West Virginia
 or Virginia and they were shot, one of them
 was killed. I think you know, I haven't read
 this year's report on gay violence and attacks.
 Boston has had its share of them. And, you know,
 that's always in my head (Sonia, age 47).

 Then he would start gay bashing and
 Swaggart would do it and you would hear all
 these pastors on the television just--and it
 would make you think, you know, "Really,
 am I really that unacceptable? Am I really
 that abominable? Are we really in this sin
 relationship? Are we really going to go to
 hell? Are we destroying each other by being
 in this relationship?" (Steve, age 56).


Reasons for Marriage

Many particpants expressed that they wanted to show each other and their witnesses that they are formally committed to each other for life. They wanted their relationships recognized. For some of them, marriage is part of a spiritual journey, yet for others, it is more about the legal protections that marriage provides. Same-sex marriage also provides the social sanctioning of a gay relationship that so many have craved for years.
 You can't represent the essence of it and
 that's the spirituality part that I'm talking
 about--that indescribable experience of being
 a family. And now that we're being
 recognized by the outside state as a family.
 It's very powerful to be recognized (Dorothy,
 age 41).

 From my sense of it--getting married was
 extremely important. It added a lot of legal-it
 created legal options and legal safety
 around, you know, if Wayne ever got sick or
 if, you know, if anything ever happened to
 him that his wishes would be taken care of
 by me rather than by other people who may
 have different agendas (Bob, age 42).

For some who were the early social pioneers, marriage was also about the political fight for equality. The Proclamation of Banns practice, for example, allowed some of them to marry without the legal recognition that accompanied this method of wedlock for heterosexual couples. In turn, however, that allowed for the beginning of court battles.
 There were 80 news organizations at our
 marriage, on our wedding day because the
 media understood around the world that that
 was a legal marriage because we had got
 the legal record signed, sealed, and delivered
 in our hands. All that we didn't have was
 that number registered in a book....
 Eventually the Ontario Court of Appeal and
 the divisional level both ratified that our
 marriage was legal at that point. And on June
 10 of this year [2003] the government was
 ordered to register that marriage so we
 became registered in June of this year (Chad,
 age 45).

An altruistic motive was usually evident as well: those who fought for gays and lesbians wanted to make it better for the gay and lesbian youth of today and tomorrow so that they do not need to enter their life with the same degree of bleakness that clouded gay life in the past. Children will grow up experiencing a different social reality, and someday their children will wonder how it was ever the case that gays and lesbians were not treated equally before the law.
 There is going to be whole generations of
 queer children growing up, not knowing-not
 believing that they couldn't get married.
 Not having that self-doubt. Not having that
 self-hate--that kind of thing (Mary, age 34).

 It's the future that counts. We didn't produce
 children but we know that heterosexuals are
 producing the next generation of gays, and
 we, and lesbians, want them to not have to
 look at that barren territory that we had to
 look at (Dan, age 61).

The participants conveyed the sense that marriage brings greater depth, understanding, and completion to a relationship and that it cements a relationship in financial and emotional ways. They knew that it symbolized monogamy for most of them. They knew that it provides recognition of them as a family.
 And we were very certain about this case,
 that we wanted to stay together and we were
 very certain about us two understanding each
 other and we just wanted to get married to
 give our relationship some more depth
 (Martin, age 45).

 We wanted to legitimize our relationship to
 the point where--we'd been living together
 for eight months and we know that we are
 right for each other. We wanted that final
 recognition that, you know, we're a legitimate
 couple like all of my married girl friends and
 married straight male friends (Ann, age 49).

Views About Marriage

Although these couples decided to marry, not everyone in the gay and lesbian community supports their quest. Some of their biggest opponents to same-sex marriage are themselves gay or lesbian. One of the opponents' criticisms is that marriage is a patriarchal heterosexual institution. Others believe it will lead to the demise of gay culture, or to the loss of uniqueness that results from being gay or lesbian.
 He began to write in [a gay tabloid] that, in
 his view, the vast majority of the queer
 community is against marriage, and in his
 view, by buying into this oppressive,
 misogynist institution, those gays who wanted
 to do so were endangering, and putting at
 risk, the queer culture. Now, he never
 produced any evidence to back up his claim
 that the vast majority of the queer community
 is against gay marriage, but he wrote an
 editorial in which he said that a 30-year
 relationship was of no more value than a 20-minute
 blowjob in [a park] (Frank, age 57).

Participants stress the importance of equality, and this belief carries forward into their marriages. They have little doubt that same-sex marriage will help redefine marital roles, but they believe that this will be a good thing.
 There can be of course in any relationship,
 disparities in power imbalances, but overall
 we don't come into them with men having
 more power with women automatically
 changing their names to their husbands'
 names. All the real feminist pitfalls of
 marriage do not exist between gay men or
 lesbians because you start off on equal footing
 (Ann, age 49).

 I think gay people bring something special to
 it. It's just that we don't have as much
 baggage with marriage. We haven't, you
 know, felt pressure from our parents to marry
 our partners, certainly. You know, it wasn't
 possible, or maybe desirable, so were
 bringing something kind of fresh to it. You
 know, we're defining it for ourselves for the
 first time (Meagin, age 44).

Some of the participants were angered by the notion that in getting married they were, in some way, trying to become like heterosexuals. If gay culture cannot exist with some getting married, then the culture must indeed be fragile. They are not saying that every gay person should make a lifetime commitment to his or her partner. The legalization of same-sex marriage is about having a choice. Perhaps most gay people will not choose it, and that is okay. For those who want to be committed to each other, however, it becomes another matter entirely. Democracy is based on having freedom of choice. Participants were confused by the logic that is used against same-sex marriage.
 It's quite easy for me because this is an
 equality issue for queers. And whether or
 not I personally believed in marriage, I would
 be offended and want to fight for queers to
 have the right to marry or not to marry. To
 have that choice because Canadians are not
 all equal citizens until we have that choice.
 So to me that is a no brainer (Ann, age 49).

Marriage has been viewed as an important rite of passage throughout history. The participants see marriage as between two people, and they don't believe it is about gender. Same-sex marriage reflects the belief that gays and lesbians are equal "humans." It is not just about equality however, it is also about dignity.
 And that this [same-sex marriage] isn't just
 an equal rights issue, it's time that all
 Canadians are treated with dignity and
 respect. And that, you know, you have to
 have that for yourself too (Ruth, age 30).

The participants feel privileged to finally have the right to marry. They feel lucky to be married to their partner, and marriage has felt fantastic to them. Most of them already felt "married" before the actual marriage itself, but the act of marriage forced a deeper reflection regarding the sincerity and depth of their commitment.
 I started crying right at first when the
 judgement came down [legalizing same-sex
 marriage in British Columbia]. I just couldn't
 believe that I had been allowed to be equal
 to everybody in the country (Bill, age 58).

The gay and lesbian community doesn't have a lot of baggage with marriage. The participants entered into it with a fresh view, a perspective that some believe may bring them back to more of the ideals that underlie it. Many participants emphasized that they had already created a strong foundation with their partner before they married because when they first began dating, they didn't know that they could, or would, eventually marry. Without the prospective of marriage driving the direction of their relationship, they created relationships that were based on genuine mutuality. They stayed with their partners because they wanted to, and not because they were legally bound to do so.
 I met him March 17, on St. Patrick's Day, in
 1956. He was staying with a friend of his
 that he grew up with in Thunder Bay, and his
 friend had called me and we were chatting
 and he had mentioned that he had a very nice
 fellow there that I should meet. So I invited
 John over to my little wee bachelor apartment
 to have a drink and chat, and he kept coming
 back each day and each day he would get a
 parking ticket on his car (Brian, age 66).

 I know that there's a bond there and it' s--it's
 an agreement between two people and
 it's something that means a lot to me, to know
 that that person has said, "For richer, for
 poorer, and through sickness and in health."
 I know that person is going to be there for
 me (Wayne, age 34).

The participants have often heard that marriage includes connections with the partner's family members. It is a means by which different families join. They believe that everyone suffers when gays and lesbians are excluded from society's social institutions.
 And two families are joined together and I
 think that the sad thing about homosexual/
 gay relationships is that, you know, like, we
 were even talking about two guys today who
 have lived together for ten years but are
 roommates to their families, right? Now, those
 families are not joined together (Bob, age 42).

Their Relationship

Connecting. Sometimes the participants' connection with their partners was immediate. Others became close friends first. The idea that friendship would eventually lead to a romantic relationship and then marriage was not in their consciousness. They met each other in all kinds of places and through all kinds of people.
 This euphemism, you know, love at first sight,
 and I'm afraid it was (Frank, age 57).

 [How they met] There was a web site called
 Groovy Annie's and I think it was a Canadian
 web site and there was a place where you
 could post messages and I was scrolling
 through there one day.... I come across this
 message that this person sounds pretty
 similar to me and says that she is tired of
 being the third wheel. So I e-mail her
 (Shauna, age 34).

Their initial motives weren't always about love and enduring friendship, however. Their relationships sometimes developed following a sexual encounter.
 Oh, it was love at first sight, it better have
 been love at first sight! It was sex at first
 sight (Sheldon, age 55).

What They Value About Their Partners. Traits that participants considered important in their partners included spontaneity, self-confidence, physical beauty, gentleness, intelligence, and a relaxed disposition. Some said that they still felt excited when they saw their mates, despite having been together for several years.

However, like every other couple they also struggled. They had differences of opinion at times, and at other times, they misunderstood or miscommunicated with each other. A complication that heterosexuals don't face is that gays and lesbians are often at different stages of sexual identity development. For example, one of the pair may still be struggling with his or her sexual orientation, while the other may have already been out for years. That can lead to unique tensions, like whether the couple can come out to their own or their partner's family.
 Of course we have struggles. We have
 different personalities as well, and you cannot
 have the same mind, I mean, we are married,
 we are close, but we still have our own ideas
 and, of course, there are some discussions
 about that and, of course, there are things I
 do which irritate Heinz and there are things
 that Heinz does that irritate me as well, but
 small things (Martin, age 45).

Parenting, Children, and Adoption. Having a child is a common point of reference for many people, regardless of their sexual orientation. Most of the participants did not have children, although some would like to. It is more common for a lesbian couple to have children than a gay male couple. When children are involved, it is usually the result of one partner having had children from a past heterosexual union, or as a result of a pregnancy through artificial insemination. Adoption of a child from an outside source is also a possibility.
 Gay people can adopt as a couple, in the
 Netherlands, but the law is that you can't
 adopt a child in a country that doesn't accept
 gay adoptions. So in that case, you have to
 have single-parent adoptions (Janice, age 48).

For those participants with children, they occasionally have to teach people about homosexual family issues, for examples, at the schools where their children attend. They have observed that elementary-school aged children readily accept the idea that their child has two moms or two dads, but by the time they are in junior or senior high, they have already solidified some of their homophobic views. Their teenage children do get teased or harassed occasionally by their peers, and these participants are angry that they have to experience this. They raise children as do heterosexual couples, except that they also face social pressures for being gay or lesbian.
 ... we have a different outlook on life in
 general. Our children are not prejudiced, they
 are told the truth about everything, not too
 much detail about certain things but enough
 to make them aware that yes everybody out
 there is practically alike but there are different
 views or different opinions on different
 subjects. And that is one thing I see the same
 in terms of, our family unit is the same as a
 heterosexual couple (Wanda, age 32).

Many of the participants have adopted their partner's biological child. In some cases, this has required that the biological father renounce his legal rights. That is sometimes arranged from the very beginning in instances of artificial insemination.
 I've never felt that because we brought a
 child into the world we were making a
 statement against or for a certain society. I
 felt more that, on a spiritual level, I felt that
 is was just something that I would naturally
 do as a human being in the world, and
 naturally go through the spiritual journey of
 creating a family--which is a very, for many
 people, especially when you have a little
 kid it's very much a spiritual journey
 (Dorothy, age 41).

Gay Relationships Contrasted to Straight Relationships

Some participants believed that they understood their partners better because they are both of the same gender. If there is any truth contained in the book entitled Men Are from Mars', Women Are from Venus (Gray 2003), then men are different from women in the way they think and in the way they approach life. Two women possibly understand each other better than a man and a woman, and that might make the relationship easier. The same may be true of two men together in a relationship. In their relationships, neither partner can assume what the gender roles are going to look like: household chores and routine tasks need to be negotiated on bases other than gender lines. In their relationships, the participants could make few assumptions. Some of the participants believe that love is different for heterosexuals because men tend to see women as inferior and unequal. Not everyone shared this view, however.
 Well, often times, heterosexual men see
 women as unequal, inferior (Dan, age 61).

 There was a man who wanted to ask his
 girlfriend on the radio to marry him and he
 called up the radio station and they said, "Oh,
 how long have you been dating," and he said,
 "Two months." And I thought, oh my God,
 you're going to marry and you've been
 together two months! It's very frightening and
 I'm just thinking, it is just way too easy for
 heterosexuals to get married! (Joyce, age 30)

 Um, women--relationships between two
 women, amongst straight men are
 extremely--not only, you know, acceptable,
 but desirable. It's a fantasy component of
 what they like to think about. And, I think
 that the relationship between two women is
 much more acceptable to the general
 population (Ann, age 49).

For those who had previous heterosexual relationships, they felt that their same-sex relationship was superior. That should come as no surprise. If they weren't gay or lesbian, they would likely have continued having intimate relationships with the opposite gender.
 Well, first off, I would say having lived both
 13 years in a heterosexual relationship and
 20 in a homosexual relationship, that
 homosexual relationship is so much better,
 for me. I'm not saying that another ... woman
 who is heterosexual would say the same thing,
 not at all, but it's like I found myself and it's
 such a relief and it's wonderful. Um, so for
 that reason, you know, finding myself.
 Finding honouring who I really am as a
 homosexual woman is fantastic (Amie, age 56).

Another difference is that heterosexual marriage is tied to traditions, whereas there are no expectations yet in same-sex marriages. Many of the participants have kept friendships with their past lovers, which may be less common for heterosexuals. They have learned to support each other in creative and unique ways because they did not have marriage, until recently, to fall back on.
 I don't think gay people are as likely to banish
 their past partners from their lives as straight
 people are. You know, gay people seem to
 have, you know, if my first partner were still
 alive, he would very much still be in my life.
 My second partner very much is still in my
 life, and my third partner, if he hadn't stalked
 me, he would still be in my life. I guess it
 would be my goal to reconcile and be friends
 with people I've shared that much time and
 relationship with (Bob, age 42).

 We try and make our ex-lovers current
 friends (Wayne, age 34).

Gay Relationships" Compared to Straight Relationships

Some of the participants believe that the only difference between same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage is that gays and lesbians cannot bear children without outside help. A lot of time in relationships is simply spent managing the day-to-day affairs of running a household. Like heterosexual couples, most of their time is not spent making love. Working together at home or on common goals are all expressions of their partnership and commitment to each other.
 It's similar [i.e., marriage] in the tact that
 we all cant the same concerns. We decided
 to blend our finances when we moved in
 together. And, you know, it's a balance of
 where do we spend the money, where does
 this go? Are we going to have any sort of
 savings, if so, how do we save? Do we do
 RRSP, do we do mutual funds, do we do
 stock, life insurance, whatever. We've got
 the everyday financial stuff: You've got the
 breakdown of household duties, um, just
 maintaining a household--groceries, laundry,
 shopping, cleaning, cooking, all that. And
 you've got your interpersonal skills. You've
 got the whole communication thing and
 learning to respect each other's boundaries
 (Wayne, age 34).

Many participants said they have the same emotional attachments, commitment, and desire for companionship as heterosexual individuals.

Similar to heterosexual marriage, their marriages also represent the joining of families with significant implications for family roles and relationships.
 I did lose family. I lost all my in-laws for a
 long time except--well, not my father-in-law.
 He stuck around and tried to he was still
 friends with us. He didn't want to lose that
 connection but my mother-in-law, who is still
 alive, is 93, she's really never ever spoken to
 me in all these years (Lisa, age 59).

 I could just watch him, and be there for him,
 and let it come out and then see him calm
 down. Then I could talk to him about the
 rational side of it and say, "Yeah. You know,
 I'm really sorry that you're having to go
 through this. Your mom and I are not going
 to stop loving each other. We'll continue to
 love. You shouldn't be teased the way you
 are and I'm sorry society is like that. I would
 guess in another 10 or 15 years, maybe 20
 years, it's going to be fine. But right now
 you're a teenager and you're getting it, and
 that's not fair." So, that's kind of the way
 we'd handle it (Amie, age 56).

Several of the participants concluded that love is love: it transcends gender. For them, the dynamics of all relationships, gay or straight, are internally the same. These participants view their marriages as equivalent to heterosexual marriages--no better, and no worse.
 Love is love, you know. It is between a man
 and woman or two men it is about the same
 thing, the same feelings. It is something you
 feel, you know. It makes no difference if you
 are gay or straight, it is the same feeling for
 me anyway. I don't think it is different (Clark,
 age 48).

Benefits of Same-Sex Marriage

There is power in the institution of marriage. Marriage has been empowering to the participants and has allowed them to solidify their commitment to their partners. The participants appreciate that because they're married, they are now 100 percent in the relationship--not 98 percent or 99 percent.
 Yeah. Because for us, being married is a lot
 about being 100% in this relationship and not
 99.9% or 98% or just really, you know,
 standing in it and saying, "This is it. We'll
 give it everything we have" (Meagin, age 44).

 There's ways in which we just click and get
 along and ways in which we clash, and all of
 that's okay. I mean, all of that is exactly what
 happens in a marriage and there's nothing
 about her that needs to change--I mean,
 that's what I married and it's still here and
 it's--well, I'm going to encounter, you know,
 whatever. You know, the things that irritate
 her about me, I mean, she married that. That's
 what's going to be there and it's not--you
 know, it's not about, kind of, having
 reservations and doubts. It's saying, "Okay.
 Those things are there and I accept them,
 and I even love them, and that's the way it
 is," and by marrying, you're saying that we're
 going to put everything that we have into
 making this work (Janice, age 48).

 Respect, I think a lot of--being able to share
 and being able to have a lot of fun together. ...
 And it makes you just want to be with that
 other person, because that's the most fun you
 have when you're with the other person
 (Jackie, age 45).

Globally, there is a social understanding of the word marriage. Marriage is universally understood and universally recognized and it is considered the evidence of a real relationship.
 People understand the word "marriage."
 They know, you know, it doesn't matter where
 you go. "This is my wife" and they know
 what you mean. They may be a little confused
 about the fact that you're both women, but
 they know what the word means (Ruth, age

As people age, they develop an increasing awareness of their own mortality. In instances where there is no marriage and in the absence of a will, the possessions of the deceased go to the estate, and not the widow or widower. The participants made it clear that in some instances, they or others they know have been excluded in end-of-life decisions affecting their dying life partner.
 We knew ... members of the community who
 died in the September 11th attacks and you
 know, the partners of these people, one
 woman in particular, had absolutely nothing
 in her name.... It was all in her girlfriend's name,
 taken away from her.... And I don't think that
 people think about it (Trudy, age 46).

What's particularly horrible is these things don't come up and we don't think about them ahead of time cause who wants to. But they do come up, they come up around death, disability, disease you know, bad things. That's when bad things happen that all of a sudden we realize that, "Oh my God, we're not protected" (Sonia, age 47).

Drawbacks to Same-Sex Marriage

If there are drawbacks to same-sex marriage, they are no different from the drawbacks to heterosexual marriage. A relationship may not last. Divorce is possible for gays and lesbians too.

Some participants are concerned that some gay and lesbian couples might marry on impulse or to make a point.
 I'd hate people to get married for political
 reasons and then oh, you know, it's not
 working out, let's get divorced. I mean, it's
 probably not going to be that way forever,
 but I would love the divorce rate for gay
 couples to be zero just to show that we can
 do it! (Joyce, age 30).

 But I don't think in the end that gay men and
 women will necessarily have a better key to
 longevity and the meaning of happiness than
 heterosexual couples. Roger and I started at
 an advantage cause we'd been together 22
 years so the foundations are, and should be,
 very strong but it's the, the old cliche's are
 true. It's hard work, it's communicating, it's
 trust, it's enjoying one another and the ability
 to listen, which is a continuing difficulty for
 me (Sheldon, age 55).


The Fight for Marriage--Activism and the Political Front We live in countries that pride themselves on having a social conscience and having respect for equality, justice, and liberty. Yet, the participants have not been treated as equals, they have not seen justice, and they have not been free. They are constantly reminded in Canada and the United States that many citizens would like to ensure that they are prevented from having the genuine equality represented, in their view, by the right to marry.
 Yeah, yeah, I often always said, you know,
 this is a phrase I like not just cause I made it
 up, but Sheldon and I illuminated a match and
 lit up the world. I think it's true, whether it
 may still be very dark in very many places in
 the world and they may never be receptive
 to it but what we did with an idea, and that's
 what all good ideas are about, at some point
 in history, somehow the match gets lit and
 you know illumination happens. And the
 illumination wasn't there the day before. ...
 But I'm saying that's what gay marriage is
 all about. It has illuminated a light, shone a
 light, not fundamentally on marriage or not
 to marry, but on the more primal issues or
 two men falling in love, of two women falling
 in love, forming a nuclear family, um, extended
 nuclear family if they have children (Roger,
 age 45).

Some participants have gone to great lengths to establish their right to marry and to help others obtain this same right.
 We had to go through all that process and it
 cost a fortune and we said how much it cost,
 people are amazed. Well, why did you have
 to spend all that money? (Clark, age 48).
 Dr. Alderson: So how much have you spent
 up to this point?

 ... we're at about $375,000 of which we've
 covered about a hundred grand.... (Dan, age 61).

 By having a Canadian marriage to be
 recognized in Hong Kong and that would set
 the precedence so anybody coming after that
 should be protected if we can set a
 precedence. So that is the reason why we
 came all the way from Hong Kong to here
 to get married (Russell, age 36).

 Well, the legal debates that have occurred
 and the political debates, which are hand in
 hand with the legal, will certainly be a part of
 that because I am outraged at the way in
 which our charter has been taunted and
 debased by those who oppose same-sex
 marriage. And I'm outraged by the way our
 courts and judicial system has been slandered,
 and I am also equally outraged with the
 politicians who have allowed this situation to
 be so mishandled (Chad, 45).

 We're after the same rights. And there is an
 inner feeling about the whole thing. I'm just
 as equal. I'm just the same. I'm sure we live
 our lives differently. But basically it's the
 same--the same feelings inside (David,
 age 56).


Many studies have indicated that gay and lesbian couples are generally as satisfied in their relationships and are as in love with their partners as are heterosexual couples (Bohan, 1996). Depending on the study, about 40 to 60 percent of gay men and 40 to 80 percent of lesbians are in committed relationships at any given time (see Bohan, 1996). Given these observations, same-sex marriage would seem to be a likely next step in recognizing and appreciating the emotional depth and commitment already existent within LGBT couple relationships.

Most gays and lesbians do not adopt the traditional gender roles when in relationship to one another (Peplau, 1993), which may explain the research finding that gay and lesbian relationships are generally more egalitarian compared to heterosexual relationships (Kurdek, 1995). It is possible that married couples of the same sex will bring new approaches to and appreciation of the institution of marriage.

It seems likely that the right to marry will also enhance the psychological well-being of same-sex couples. Several models of gay and lesbian identity acquisition include establishing a committed relationship as being part of the final developmental stage (Alderson, 2003; Cass, 1996; Coleman, 1981-82; Troiden, 1979). Research suggests that those who self-disclose their sexual minority identity to others are often psychologically healthier compared to those who don't (Ellis & Riggle, 1995; Morris, Waldo, & Rothblum, 2001) and they may be physically healthier as well (Cole, Kemeny, Taylor, & Visscher, 1996). The empirical and theoretical research therefore suggests that permitting LGBT individuals to marry will likely prove psychologically and physically beneficial for them. Further studies will need to be done for empirical validation.


Qualitative inquiry is often used to study phenomenoa about which little is known. It is also ideally suited when one wishes to gain a richer understanding of an experience or known phenomenon. Its one limitation of this methodology is that small sample sizes preclude generalization of the findings. In the current study, 13 of the 22 couples interviewed were themselves political activists for same-sex marriage. Consequently, the experience of same-sex marriage may look significantly different for the majority of same-sex couples who simply chose to get married without having motives for political and societal change.

Furthermore, given that political activists have a huge investment in their cause, it is possible that their responses to questions were influenced by their need to present same-sex marriage in an overly favourable light. This possibility is offset to some extent, however, in that the responses from the nine couples who were not activists did not differ appreciably compared to the activists in their motives to marry and in their descriptions of their relationships.

Another potential limitation is that due to time constraints, the coding of the transcripts was conducted by 12 individuals. As the author did not code each transcript himself, some themes may have been missed, and others misconstrued. Given the number of individuals who participated in the interviews (n = 43), it is unlikely that this created significant inaccuracy.

The mean age of the sample was 46.3 years with a range of 30 to 66 years. A sample of younger same-sex married couples may produce a substantially different composite description of what same-sex marriage looks like for them. The couples in the current study were also together for a mean of 15 years with a range of 1.5 to 47 years. Couples who have been together for fewer years before entering into marriage may also produce a much different picture as well. Furthermore, the newness of the phenomenon in Canada and the U.S., and the struggle for it, may have added a bloom of enthusiasm that coloured our respondents' views.

This research appears to be the first phenomenological study of same-sex marriage conducted in either Canada or the U.S. Although its results must be considered cautiously, many of the conclusions are clear. Same-sex marriage is here for good, and for many LGBT individuals, this is a societal change that is long overdue.
Table 1 Chronology of Same-Sex Marriage

Month and Year Country, Province, or State

April 2001 The Netherlands
June 2003 Belgium
June 2003 Ontario, Canada
July 2003 British Columbia, Canada
May 2003 Massachusetts, U.S.
Mar 2004 Quebec, Canada
July 2004 The Yukon, Canada
Sept 2004 Manitoba, Canada
Sept 2004 Nova Scotia, Canada
Nov 2004 Saskatchewan, Canada

Table 2 Selected Demographic Characteristics of 43
Same-Sex Partners Participating in One-on-One Interviews (%)


Male 25
Female 18


Mean 46.3
Median 46
Mode 56
Range 30-66

Relationship Status

Married 25 (58)
Registered Domestic Partnership 2 (4)
Commitment Ceremony 8 (19)
Common Law 8 (19)

Years Together

Mean 15
Median 9.5
Range 1.5-47


Anglophone 39 (91)
Francophone 1 (2)
Chinese 2 (50
Native 1 (2)

Education (highest level completed) *

Medical Degree 1 (2)
Masters Degree 7 (16)
Bachelaureate 16 (37)
Some University 1 (2)
Two-Year College Diploma 3 (7)
High School 8 (19)
Junior High School 3 (7)
No Response 4 (9)

Employment Status *

Professional occupations 14 (3)
Business occupations 13 (30)
Trades and labour 3 (7)
Artistic and creative 6 (14)
Service occupations 5 (12)
Retired 2 (5)

Residence *

British Columbia 16 (37)
Alberta 2 (5)
Manitoba 2 (5)
Ontario 9 (21)
Quebec 2 (5)
Maritimes 2 (5)
United States 4 (10)
The Netherlands 4 (10)
Hong Kong 2 (5)

* Total percentages do not equal 100 due to rounding.

Table 3 Sample Interview Questions

The first question will be asked of everyone at the start of the
interview. From your leads, the interview will continue in an
unstructured manner (i.e., spontaneous questions will follow
from your responses).

Initial Question

 1. I want to understand your experience of being in a same-sex
 marriage. I am looking for a rich and detailed exploration of
 what this has been like for the two of you.
 So that you have some idea of what I am looking for, I have
 compiled the following list of the areas I want to explore
 with you. As part of the interview, I will want to know
 about such things as:

 2. The quality of your relationship.

 3. What you value about your partner.

 4. Relationship issues you have faced.

 5. What your relationship needs to continue growing.

 6. Why you chose marriage (or other arrangement) and what
 led to this decision.

 7. How your relationship is similar to, and different from,
 heterosexual married couples.

 8. Reactions of family and friends to your plans to get married
 (if applicable), and subsequently.

 9. Examples of times when you were subjected to anti-gay
 sentiment or behaviour.

10. Public displays of affection--what feels safe, what do you
 feel is permissible, etcetera.

11. If you and your partner were part of the legal and/or political
 battle to help change the laws regarding same-sex marriage
 in this province (or nationally), what is your experience
 around this.

12. Questions regarding the current political climate where you
 live regarding same-sex marriage.

13. Impact on the gay community regarding same-sex marriage

14. Advantages and drawbacks of same-sex marriage.

15. Advice you would give to gay men and lesbians considering

16. Upon reflection, is there a metaphor, image, movie, or piece
 of music that really speaks to your feelings or thoughts

Table 4 The Categories and Themes Derived from
the Same-Sex Marriage Interviews

Individual Development

Same-Sex Attraction
Coming Out to Self (Self-Identification)
Internalized Homophobia and Other Feelings
Disclosing to Others
External Homophobia, Public Affection, and Consequences

Relationships And Marriage

Reasons for Marriage
Views About Marriage
Their Relationship

(a) Connecting

(b) What They Value About Their Partners

(c) Parenting, Children, and Adoption
 Gay Relationships Contrasted to Straight Relationships
 Gay Relationships Compared to Straight Relationships
 Benefits of Same-Sex Marriage
 Drawbacks of Same-Sex Marriage

History, Politics, And Activism
The Fight for Marriage--Activism and the Political Front

* Pertaining To Gay And Lesbian Individuals

* Future Hopes for the Gay Community

* Advice to Those Thinking About Getting Married

* The Metaphors of Same-Sex Marriage

* Note: These themes will be described in a separate article.


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Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Kevin G. Alderson, Division of Applied Psychology, EdT 302, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive N.W., Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4. E-mail:

Kevin G. Alderson Division of Applied Psychology University of Calgary Calgary, Alberta
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Author:Alderson, Kevin G.
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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