Will States Without Marriage Equality Face A Gay Brain Drain?

Consider this. You live in a state where your relationship is not legally recognized. A nearby state offers marriage equality. If you had the option, would you move to the state where you can get all the benefits of marriage?

For same-sex couples with career flexibility, the answer may well be yes. Faced with the choice of having all the protections that come from a legally recognized relationship, as well as the social acceptance, and having no official recognition of their relationship, couples may well pick up stakes and go, creating a gay brain drain in states without marriage equality.

Bloomberg News cites as an example Hans Bernhard and Mitch Null, a couple in North Carolina raising their one-year-old daughter, Eva. The pair are considering moving to Maryland, where they not only can be married but where Bernhard can legally adopt Eva, an option not available to him in North Carolina. Berhard is a veterinarian, and Null an IT business operations officer, exactly the kind of professionals that states throw tax dollars at corporations to bring to the state.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee explicitly cited the prospect of losing an economic edge in promoting the marriage equality law there last spring. Chafee said that marriage equality is a kind of social barometer for the type of young professionals — straight or gay — the state wants to attract.

But the flip side of luring workers to your state because of your policy is losing workers for the same reason. “States that recognize the rights of gay and lesbian households, they provide a signal to other people that those are the kind of places that they want to be in,” Richard Florida, author of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, told Bloomberg. “For many highly skilled, highly educated people, this is a nontrivial factor in decision making.”

And it will be gay professionals who will be most motivated to vote with their feet. Over time, as more states adopt marriage equality, geography may matter less, but by then people will be settled in their new homes and not inclined to return to the place that took so long to welcome them.

Of course, moving is an expensive proposition. Lots of working lesbians and gay men don’t have the luxury of careers that are easily transported. Others have family obligations that will keep them tied to where they live now. In the end, it will be the professional class that will most likely decided to call the moving van.

For better or worse, though, it’s the professional class that attracts the most attention among the political elite. Will a gay brain drain speed the arrival of marriage equality in the deep South? That’s very unlikely. But in states like Oregon, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which pride themselves on their attractiveness to white-collar industries, like technology, an economic argument can make a big difference. The fear of losing gay professionals may not be the most uplifting argument for marriage equality, but in the end it may be one of the most effective.

Photo credit: cmorran123