Associate Professor of Sociology Marion Willetts is contributing to the dialogue surrounding the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, though her research didn’t quite start out that way.

“The process towards same-sex marriage wasn’t something I originally set out to study,” Willetts said.

For her dissertation in the ’90s, Willetts was interested in trends of straight couples making a departure from marriage and studied couples who lived together as a permanent alternative to marriage or who had become licensed domestic partners.

Later, she became intrigued by the progression of domestic partnerships in California. As she interviewed state legislators about the process and began asking what people thought of heterosexual couples becoming domestic partners, she learned that it was, as one legislator described it, a “gay issue,” and that many considered domestic partnerships as one stop along the way to legalizing same-sex marriage.

It wasn’t long before Willetts became engaged in examining a lengthy and controversial process in California, following the rise and fall of legalizing same-sex marriage. She took a retrospective approach and reviewed legislation, court cases and voter initiatives. She also interviewed legislators and their staff members, including members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Caucus, with the intention of not only understanding the mechanics of the process, but also the social climate surrounding it.

In addition to a host of bills regarding domestic partnerships and same-sex marriage being introduced in California over the course of several years, for a brief time in 2004, 4,000 same-sex couples were able to obtain marriage licenses in San Francisco, but these were quickly nullified. Several couples sued, taking the issue to the Supreme Court of California, and in 2008, the Court ruled that the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equal protection under the law was violated by reserving marriage for different-sex couples. However, voters were soon able to enact Proposition 8, a measure that banned same-sex marriage. The issue is now pending a decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals on whether bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional.

“By the very time I had the policy figured out, they changed it,” said Willetts. “I discovered that policy implementation occurs on an incremental basis. It is a legal issue, but also a moral, civil rights and human rights issue. With the opposition and supporters being so passionate, it is not an issue that is going to be legally resolved any time soon.”

The lessons learned from California serve as a model for the rest of the country. California’s long history demonstrates the sociocultural context that includes public opinion regarding homosexuality and legal recognition of same-sex unions and issues of individual rights versus social control, in which the legal process is embedded. Willetts’ observation of these elements has led her to speculate on how legal recognition will progress in the United States. She said that civil unions and domestic partnerships are steps in the right direction, and that it will not be “all or nothing,” a notion that highlights the complexities even amongst supporters.

“The same-sex couple community is split on this issue themselves. There is a large group that feels anything short of marriage is separate but unequal. Other same-sex couples don’t want to marry because they believe it is heterosexist and patriarchal institution that they do not want to be associated with.”

Willetts noted that public opinion outside the same-sex couple community is increasingly supportive of recognizing same-sex unions, and is a major influence on legislation. She spoke of how religion and morality are often invoked in opposition, and that those that advocate same-sex marriage must frame the issue differently, as either a civil rights or human rights issue, in order to garner support of those that may be on the fence.

“There is a sizable proportion of the population that has made a decision on where they stand on this issue. But there is a broad middle section of the continuum, and those opposed to same sex marriage have been more successful in getting that middle support.”

After witnessing the turmoil in California and considering the climate in other states, Willetts has concluded that a national policy is necessary, but believes the likely outcome will be a civil union or domestic partnership policy. Several states, including Illinois, have these policies on the books, but they vary from state to state.

“In some states they really are the functional equivalents of marriage, but in other states it is just more symbolic,” said Willetts.

The discontinuity can create headaches for couples, because the policies do not provide the same legal protections that marriage does. Willetts gave the example of a spouse getting injured while on vacation and the partner having no legal standing to make medical decisions because their union is not recognized in that state.

“It is also a problem because it limits a couple’s ability to live where they want or follow their careers. It should be so that contracts between couples are portable.”

These inconveniences are only part of a deeper rationale for a national policy. Because marriage is still treated differently legally and culturally, civil unions or domestic partnerships continue to be perceived as occupying a second-class status. Willetts thinks that the climate will continue to evolve towards equality.

“With steps like the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ the country is on a general trajectory of recognition. Marriage won’t be the first way that we do that. Any policies that equalize straight and homosexual individuals, or legislation prohibiting any form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation are part of that. It seems that the unions of same-sex couples is the final issue.”

Willetts believes that all of the key components of the argument in favor of a national-level policy are out there, but that proponents must be persistent in order to shape public opinion. It will also largely depend on the political environment, including which party controls the White House and Congress.

“In sociology and a lot of other disciplines, there is a debate about whether our role is to study society or to change society,” said Willetts. “I do hope that by the public becoming aware of what I and other researchers are discovering, it will make them more understanding and accepting of same-sex couples, their relationships and their families. We don’t need to be, and should not be, a monolithic, one-size-fits-all society. It’s not beneficial to anybody.”