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The price of prejudice: States that ban same-sex marriage leave millions on the table

Gay weddings are an undeniable economic boon.

Rodrigo Zamora, left, and Ashby Hardesty exit the New York City clerk's office after their wedding in Manhattan in June 2015.REUTERS

Even as President Biden prepares to sign the Respect for Marriage Act into law, conservatives remain divided over same-sex marriage. While the bill passed by a wide margin in the House, 169 Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, only 12 of 50 Republican senators joined the vote for the bill’s passage.

While dubious debates about religious liberties and unfounded concerns about polygamous unions took center stage in the lead-up to the vote, few paused to consider the economic impact of the bill. If others had looked, they would have discovered what Massachusetts learned almost 20 years ago: The legalization of same-sex marriage is linked to huge society-level economic benefits.


Because Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, the Williams Institute at UCLA looked to the Commonwealth to study the financial impact of legalization. Analyzing the first five years after legalization, they calculated how much same-sex couples and their guests spent on average on their weddings. The number was striking: approximately $100 million. While the couples in this study lived in Massachusetts, they reported hosting an average of 16 out-of-state wedding guests. Much of this spending — and the resulting state and local tax revenue — would not have occurred had Massachusetts not legalized same-sex marriage.

Perhaps other states envied this economic boost because between 2004 and 2015, dozens more states, including Iowa, New York, and California, legalized same-sex marriage. The Williams Institute expanded its research to calculate the financial impact on all states — a total of 37 — where same-sex marriages were performed. For the period between 2015 — when the Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, effectively legalized same-sex marriage everywhere — and 2020, same-sex weddings generated an estimated $3.8 billion in spending. Of this sum, $244.1 million went to state and local sales tax revenue. Based on the study’s calculations, this novel economic activity was substantial enough to support 45,000 jobs for a year across all the states. .


Just as increased spending can be an economic boon, so can the efficient use of the labor market. Recent research by economist Dario Sansone at the University of Exeter, in England, found that states where same-sex marriage was legalized showed an increase in employment of people who belong to same-sex couples. The difference was remarkable. The probability that both members of a same-sex couple would be employed was 2.4 percentage points higher than in states where same-sex marriage was not legal.

What’s more, the data showed that LGBTQ+ individuals did not displace other job seekers. There was no change in the employment levels of people in heterosexual relationships. Instead, Sansone argues, shifts in social norms occurred with the legalization of same-sex marriage, leading to decreased employment discrimination against people in same-sex relationships. This is relevant to state economies because increased employment should lead to increased spending and tax revenue.

The employment data aligns with that of a study done by Credit Suisse showing that supporting LGBTQ+ diversity in the workplace fiscally benefits businesses. Researchers found that when compared with a global stock index, companies with LGBTQ-friendly policies showed superior performance. The investment bank’s findings make sense given the spending power of the LGBTQ+ population. Credit Suisse notes that if the global LGBTQ+ population were a single society, it would represent the world’s third largest economy and carry enormous consumer spending power.


Given the growing awareness of the multiple benefits of supporting the LGBTQ+ community, it would be good for states to remember that support for same-sex marriage might make them more appealing to businesses.In fact, these calculations appear already to be happening on a global level. In the run-up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, many multinational companies, including Google, Deutsche Bank, and MasterCard, came forward in support of the legislation. A representative from Microsoft Taiwan said of its support, “We do so not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it can make our company and society stronger and more successful.”

At a time when many Americans are feeling strained by inflation and fearful of a recession, a straightforward strategy for improving state economies should be heartily welcomed. By signing the Respect for Marriage Act into law, Biden will be protecting same-sex marriage at the federal level. Were Obergefell v. Hodges to be overturned, however, states that reverted to their pre-2015 stance by banning same-sex unions would be leaving millions of dollars on the table. Perhaps the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act would provide the nudge those states need to do what is right from both an ethical and a fiscal perspective.

Mariah G. Schug is an associate professor of psychology and gender, women, and sexuality at Widener University in Chester, Pa.


This piece has been updated to reflect the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.