UW News

March 9, 2011

New book maps battle over same-sex marriage – literally

Peter Nicolas

Peter Nicolas

A new book literally and figuratively maps the 40-year battle over same-sex marriage in the United States. It also hints where the battle might go next.

The Geography of Love: Same-Sex Marriage & Relationship Recognition in America (The Story in Maps) is a series of maps, elaborated with prose, about whats become the most prominent gay rights issue in the U.S.

“You can read the law, but its not the same as seeing patterns around the country,” said Peter Nicolas, a professor of law at the UW who with Mike Strong, a cartographer, wrote The Geography of Love.

The two men are domestic partners who hatched the book idea while watching Milk, the movie about openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. In one scene, characters study a map colored according to votes on an initiative which would have banned gay people from teaching in schools. Strong wondered how many other times voters have weighed in on gay rights issues.

Mike Strong

Mike Strong

With 15 years experience in geographic information systems, most recently at Sound Transit in Seattle, Strong searched census records, Secretary of State websites and a slew of maps for information on elections and gay rights.

Nicolas, meantime, did the legal research. He was already familiar with the workings of local politics, as he was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council as a 21-year-old who was finishing a combined bachelors and masters degree in public policy at the University of Michigan.

In February, 18 months after beginning the book, Strong and Nicolas self-published their 35-page paperback which is available in both hard copy and electronic versions.

The Geography of Love begins with a history of the fight to have gay and lesbian relationships recognized in civil unions, domestic partnerships and marriage. The struggle took off with a Minnesota lawsuit in 1970 and continues with an Illinois civil union law that goes into effect this June.

Strong and Nicolas detail relationship recognition in the U.S., including:

  • States that permit same-sex couples to marry (five plus the District of Columbia) or enter into legal unions (10).
  • Rules for contracting and ending such relationships.
  • Rights in each state.
  • Reciprocal rights between states.
  • Cities and counties that have domestic partnership registries and equal benefits ordinances.

With more maps and prose, Nicolas and Strong then lay out efforts to ban same-sex marriage, including:

  • Selected vote details by state and county.
  • Strong versus weak support for same-sex marriage rights.
  • Comparison of steps for amending state constitutions. (Changes are harder in West Virginia, for example, than in Minnesota.)

Comparing maps proves instructive. For example, the first map in the book shows where same-sex couples can get married. Minnesota is listed as prohibiting such marriages by statute. Several pages later, however, theres a map of local domestic partnership registries and equal benefits ordinances. It shows a cluster of domestic partnership registries established in Minnesota in 2010. And since The Geography of Love was published in February, two more Minnesota cities have added such registries.

“Local ordinances are predictors of whats going to happen statewide,” said Strong, adding that tracking local domestic partnerships is hard because theres no central registry, no place that lists all such ordinances.

Mapping also provided the authors some surprises. More than 60 percent of Texans have voted to ban same-sex marriage, but Travis County, home to the University of Texas at Austin, stands out because less than a majority of residents have voted for such a ban. Strong and Nicolas found similar patterns in college towns around the country.

They were also somewhat surprised to see that only five states and the District of Columbia have approved same-sex marriage but more than half of states have voted on same-sex issues.

Washington state is included in a section on notable voting regarding gay rights. A map shows that in 2009, 68 percent of King County, including Seattle, voted to expand the states domestic partnership program. Immediately northeast in more-conservative Chelan County, however, only 39 percent of residents voted for expansion.

As new legislation is enacted or major cases decided, Strong and Nicolas are updating a page at the books website.

For more information or to purchase The Geography of Love, go to the books website.