December 1, 2011 at 2:01 pm EST | by Mark Lee
D.C. marriage law engages fewer than predicted

When more than 100 same-sex couples lined up outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on the morning of March 3, 2010, to apply for marriage licenses on the first day of implementation of the city’s Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment of 2009, celebration filled the air – and D.C. small business Hello Cupcake distributed a box of cupcakes to each couple.

Emblematic of efforts by wedding-related businesses to launch affinity marketing efforts and sales solicitations targeting this new market at the initiation of marriage equality in the nation’s capital, the local confectionery had coordinated the promotional giveaway with gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who helped distribute the complimentary treats that morning outside the courthouse.

Catania had been the lead sponsor of the long awaited, strategically delayed and carefully constructed legislation, co-sponsored and first approved in one of two required votes by 10 of his 12 Council colleagues two years ago this week.

Council testimony and media reports during consideration of the modern marriage bill touted extraordinary local economic benefits to come once gay and lesbian couples were permitted to marry in Washington.

Unfortunately, although no commercial benefit was — or should be — required to justify the expansion of the civil right to marry, those projections have proven overstated and the level of anticipated revenue for local businesses has not materialized.

The shortfall is due to both unrealistic economic forecasting by some marriage equality advocates and a notably lower number of same-sex marriages performed in the District than projected.

The most widely ballyhooed and referenced analysis was provided by the Williams Institute, a privately financed think tank focusing on sexual orientation law and public policy at the UCLA School of Law that has released similar reports for a number of states and is the national media go-to source on the subject. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also issued a report with similar findings.

The group’s report indicated that extending marriage to same-sex couples would boost the District’s economy by more than $52.2 million over three years and generate increases in local government tax and fee revenues by $5.4 million and create approximately 700 new jobs.

The Institute’s financial projections were based on 14,432 same-sex couples marrying in D.C. in the first three years – including 1,882 resident couples and 12,550 couples from surrounding jurisdictions and the rest of the country. District CFO Gandhi had suggested as many as 21,000 lesbian and gay couples might marry in the city.

During the first year of the new law, a reported 6,600 licenses for all couples were issued. Although D.C. does not distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual marriages, only 3,100 licenses were issued during the prior year and in recent history the number of marriage licenses varied by only 100 or less from year to year. Consequently, the introduction of same-sex marriage in D.C. appears to have more than doubled the number of marriage licenses issued during the first year of the expanded law.

However, the resulting estimated number of same-sex couples married in D.C. during the initial 12 months represents only approximately 60 percent of the Institute’s projected total of nearly 5,500 in the first year.

Based on a requested special statistical summary provided this week by the Governmental and Public Relations office of D.C. Courts for the subsequent partial year current period, the number of same-sex marriages will likely decline to slightly more than 2,500 during the second year. As the “pent-up demand” of local and regional gay and lesbian couples desiring to marry is fulfilled, a more significant decline is anticipated for the third year.

As a result, the total number of same-sex couples expected to marry during the first three years of the law will likely represent little more than half the number predicted.

The projections for revenue to be accrued by both local businesses and the District government are also overstated, based on an estimated average wedding expenditure for D.C. gay and lesbian resident couples of nearly $10,000, with non-resident couples spending less. Although the study assumed that local same-sex couples would spend only 25 percent of the recession-adjusted $38,180 average spent by D.C. opposite-sex couples, this cost figure is not common practice or a realistic financial assessment of many same-sex weddings.

The projected creation of 700 new local jobs is the more unsupportable advance claim, resulting from political theoreticians crunching abstract, and oversized, numbers in a way foreign to experienced common-sense business owners. By comparison, each of the six large Walmart stores to soon open in the District will each employ only 300 workers.

The successful long-term political strategy undertaken by community leaders to ensure that D.C. would join the small number of states adopting marriage equality to date benefits everyone in both direct and indirect ways and is a contemporary cultural asset for the city, its business environment and employee talent attractiveness. Only the anticipated number of resulting marriages and the promise of significant direct revenues benefiting the local business community and the District’s tax coffers have proven to be the sole aspects of this historic achievement divorced from reality.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at

  • Wow. How revealing. All that drama and attention for what? And, I wonder how many of the ones who got married are still married? Love to see that figure… Civil unions, which everyone could have access to, would have worked just fine in DC and elsewhere.

  • I am not quite sure what prompted this column but as the President of the Campaign for All DC Families, the organization that helped to coordinate the fight for marriage-equality in the District, I want to make it very clear that our work on behalf of marriage-equality in the District of Columbia was never based on economic advantage but rather on securing a basic civil and human right.

    The Williams report, which I for one never believed, was also never a real consideration for any of the Councilmembers I spoke to that supported marriage-equality. The fact that passing marriage-equality in the District could possibly produce any economic advantage was merely a nice added benefit if it did happen.

    The fight for marriage-equality is one that is important whether one couple or thousands decide to marry. We don’t look at the right to marry for heterosexual couples as to whether or not it boosts the economy and the fight for same-sex marriage is simply a fight for equality under civil law. The court cases which we won over the District’s right to have marriage-equality weren’t based on economics but rather on that civil right. Currently the marriage bureau doesn’t even differentiate or count how many of the marriage applications they receive that are between same-sex couples or heterosexual couples.

    The fact that some florists or catering companies didn’t get some windfall after marriage-equality was passed could be interesting to some but we need to understand that it is irrelevant to the issue of civil and human rights.

  • Peter, it wasn’t about equal rights – it was a “fad” the novelty of which has evaporated.

  • The economic impact is lower because there were fewer marriages in the first year than were expected. Why was this? Well, for most of the first year, the anti-equality side was actively pursuing litigation which, had they prevailed, would have triggered a ballot referendum along the lines of Prop 8. At the same time, these anti-gay activists were pressuring the GOP-controlled House of Representative to include a provision mandating a ballot referendum in budget bills. Who would want to tie the knot when there is a threat that the marriage could be involuntarily dissolved?

    So the anti-gay side threatens gay marriages with dissolution and then crows about the fact that fewer people got married than expected. And the Washington Blade plays right along.

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