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updated: 11/21/2013 12:11 PM

Experts: Gay marriage law will bring change -- slowly

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  • Amanda Littauer

      Amanda Littauer

  • Monica Edwards

      Monica Edwards

  • Jennifer Keys

      Jennifer Keys

  • Mark Eckel

      Mark Eckel

 
 

It's Thanksgiving 2033, and there's a lull in the dinner conversation. "So ... when are you two kids going to get married?" a busybody uncle asks the lesbian couple sitting across from him, who roll their eyes and change the subject.

The normalization of same-sex marriage -- prohibited in Illinois until Wednesday -- will happen, sociologists predict, and with it will come changes in language and culture reflecting a more tolerant state.

But it's a complex evolution that won't happen quickly, even though Gov. Pat Quinn's signing a law permitting gays and lesbians to marry will now provide new rights from tax benefits to medical privileges.

Marriage between a man and woman "is deeply rooted in western civilization and in most human civilizations and religions," said sociologist Mark Eckel, an instructor at McHenry County College. "There will be gradual change. I don't expect the more conservative churches to start holding same-sex marriages anytime soon -- maybe in 20 years."

What might occur is an evolution in language, such as a decrease in use of gender-specific words like husband and wife, leading to a shift in how heterosexuals view marriage, experts surmise.

"I've noticed language changes already," said sociologist Monica Edwards, an assistant professor at Harper College in Palatine. "A lot of heterosexual couples use the word 'partner' to refer to each other now. It used to be when someone said 'partner,' it was automatically thought they were talking about a same-sex partner.

"If you assume all married people are heterosexual that pushes gays and lesbians into invisibility. But if you have to talk about a 'heterosexual' married couple, it makes the GLBT community more visible," Edwards added, using the acronym for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

The fact there are multiple ways to define a family is something educators incorporate into curricula. But over time, you can expect more gender-neutral language to be introduced at schools and possibly in children's literature, said sociologist Jennifer Keys, an associate professor at North Central College in Naperville.

Stories about same-sex couples "tend to be more specialized. They're books about 'special' families," Keys said. "Twenty years from now, we might see more representation in children's books."

The law also could lead to future federal and state civil rights legislation, such as adoption laws for gay and lesbian parents, thinks Amanda Littauer, a Northern Illinois University associate history professor who specializes in gender studies.

"It isn't entirely clear yet how the new law will affect the legal process of family formation, but it is likely that for a family like mine -- I gave birth to two daughters whom my partner had to adopt -- legal marriage will make it easier to secure legal relationships between children and their non-biological parents," Littauer said in an email.

As Illinois becomes the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage, it adds momentum for the federal government to act, Edwards said. "It's my suspicion that there will ultimately be a court case that will eventually render some sort of federal policy."

Various faiths are split on the same-sex issue, and Eckel thinks that "acceptance by religions will move across the spectrum depending on how secularized different denominations are." He theorized that United Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian faiths could be among the first to permit same-sex marriages.

"There is no question that a significant minority of Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage based on deeply held principles, but I predict that the opposition will diminish as the dire consequences some have warned about do not come true," Eckel said.

However, Keys found it worrisome that history shows "successes spawn counter movements." If a backlash occurs, "I hope it's not in the form of hate crimes and more restrictive legislation," she said.

With a high percentage of marriages ending in divorce, experts predict same-sex unions will follow national trends in the future. The idea of "traditional" nuclear families predominating is an outdated expectation, Eckel said.

"The only people left in the United States who routinely marry, have kids and stay married are college-educated, white people," he said. "It might not be a bad idea for family lawyers to study how to work on divorces with same-sex couples."

Littauer added: "I think we will find that marriage equality ... is limited in its ability to promote true social justice. Entire segments of the LGBT community will see few benefits from marriage equality."

Transgender youths, for instance, "face disproportionate levels of homelessness, violence, discrimination and suicide," she said.

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