- Odd Couples: A History of Registered Partnership and Gay Marriage in Scandinavia by Jens Rydström
You can't tell a book by its cover, and neither homosexuals nor communists can be easily identified simply by appearance (the reliability of gaydar to the contrary notwithstanding). As a friend patiently explained to me, this helps explain why so many people—from sexologist Alfred Kinsey to the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, respectively—were obsessed with counting them. It is also why constituents of both groups worry about being underrepresented in popular notions of the size of such minority populations. But the fact is, it is notoriously difficult to gauge the proportions of either group when there is little agreement about what they are. As for individuals identifying as LGBT, we might think that scientists would have come up with a list of accurate qualifying characteristics by now, but this is not so. In grad school I found it reassuring to assume, from the presence of the Ten Percent Society on campus in Madison, that at least ten percent of the population was gay, but it turned out that this was untrue too: the ten percent figure was taken from Kinsey but only from a certain segment of his research sample and then grossly skewed.
We might hope that a solution could be at hand once some statistics could be culled from the growing number of nations and, as in the U.S., parts of nations that have adopted new laws allowing same-sex marriage and/or civil unions. So a logical place to look would be Jens Rydström's recent report on the history of registered partnerships and same-sex marriage in Nordic nations. The Amsterdam publisher of this English-language work calls it "the first comprehensive history and analysis of gay marriage in Scandinavia, the European region 'where it all began.'" More modestly, the author describes it as "a historical study of the adoption of laws on registered partnership in Scandinavia, an investigation of their effect on society, and an analysis of their impact on gay and lesbian identity."
Here are some central questions dealt with in Rydström's book: How have attitudes and laws in Scandinavia changed on gay marriage in the past [End Page 525] decades? And why did a social movement skeptical of marriage so quickly come to endorse it? What are we to make of the new forms of family in the welfare states? What are the dimensions and trends of this social change? And how can it be compared to marriage among heterosexuals? Anyone not familiar with Nordic political debates in recent times might find it frustrating to explore all this without guidelines from a knowledgeable insider. Fortunately, Rydström has enhanced his text with an appendix briefly listing relevant political parties and gay and lesbian rights groups, "to help the reader find more easily her or his way through the jungle of political parties in Scandinavia."
Normally, a detailed discussion of statistics might not be the first chapter a reader turns to in a book of social history, but in this case chapter 5, "Gender and Marriage Statistics," is a treasure trove full of useful and understandable charts and tables, comparing and contrasting patterns in Nordic and certain other societies (e.g., the Netherlands) as well as between males and females. One might suppose that once there are same-sex marriage statistics, it would be easy to tell what percentage of a population is gay. But this is no more true than the idea that one would know exactly how many heterosexuals there are by examining marriage statistics. Rydström handles the questions arising from marriage statistics with great care and clarity and at the same time he acknowledges the skepticism called for in considering the whole question. After all, how can one count the number of homosexuals when it is not at all clear what is being counted, when the meaning of the word is vague, fluid...