Subtle discrimination


That’s the headline on page 7 of this week’s Portugal News. The lead paragraph reads:

As Portugal’s first same-sex married couple prepare to celebrate their first anniversary it has been revealed that of the 410 homosexual weddings celebrated over the course of the past 12 months, four couples have already divorced.

“It has been revealed”? Four couples have “already” divorced? And how about those scare quotes in the headline?

Where to start…oh, heck, let’s start with the glaring error in the headline.

There is no such thing as same-sex “marriage” in Portugal. There is only marriage, which is now available to committed couples regardless of sexual orientation. While some may believe that marriages between people of the same gender are not as real or valid as marriages between people of opposite gender, that remains a personal belief and has no basis in fact or in Portuguese law. Therefore, putting the term “marriage” in quotation marks when referring to marriage between gay couples is erroneous and an expression of personal opinion. Errors and opinion have no place in news headlines.

The “it has been revealed” statement sounds as if something has been hidden until now. Is there something particularly shocking about people getting divorced? Heterosexual couples have been doing it for a very long time. But I suppose, given the use of the phrase “four couples have already divorced,” the shocking part must be that these couples have divorced after only one year of marriage.

Let’s take a closer look. Four couples out of 410 works out to a divorce rate of less than one percent (0.97 to be exact). That doesn’t seem egregious to me, but the Portugal News is implying that 0.97 percent is a high number. Okay, let’s verify that with a quick Google search.

According to the Instituto Nacional de Estatística Portugal, in 2001 the divorce rate for Portuguese heterosexuals married 0–4 years was 18.3 percent. In 2002 (the last year for which I could find records), that number had increased to 19.7 percent. Now, this isn’t an exact comparison — I couldn’t find a statistic for the number of heterosexual divorces in the first year of marriage — but it doesn’t look to me as if the gays are doing anything shocking. In fact, they seem to be in better shape than the heterosexuals.

I did find a better comparator in the US Census report of 2005, which examined the yearly percent of American women’s first (heterosexual) marriages ending in divorce (Figure 2). For women who married between 1970 and 2001, 2.5 percent were divorced in their first year of marriage.

That’s 2.6 times the rate of divorce of Portuguese gays.

Perhaps the shocking part is the fact that the divorce rate among gays is so low? But if that were the case, the Portugal News would have phrased its story a bit differently, and included the statistics I’ve noted above. Instead, it used scare quotes, misleading statements, and outright factual errors to imply that marriages among gays are neither valid nor holding up well.

Wrong on both counts, and not just wrong, but an excellent example of the judgment and discrimination that gays continue to suffer, despite recent legal successes.

I don’t know why it would be surprising that gays are divorcing at a lower rate than heterosexuals. When a minority segment of society has to fight long and hard for the same rights and recognition that everyone else takes for granted, they tend to value those rights and that recognition quite a bit more highly. Perhaps in another 50 or 100 years, when marriage between gays is no big deal anymore, they’ll be divorcing at the same rate as heterosexuals. But not right now.

A failure rate of less than one percent? I’d take those odds.



Reader Ana_ñ, who is geekier than I am, dug through the site map of the Instituto Nacional de Estatística Portugal and found exactly the numbers I was looking for.

Number of Portuguese marriages in 2009 (all heterosexual, as this was the last year before equal marriage rights became law): 40,391

Number of divorces in 2009, marriage of less than one year: 453

Number of divorces in 2009, marriage of one year: 896

Total divorces, one year or less: 1,349

Heterosexual divorce rate = 1349/40,391 = 3.3%

Which leaves us with a heterosexual first-year divorce rate that is nearly three and a half times higher than the gay first-year divorce rate. Wow. I’d definitely take those odds.

(Note for the especially geeky and statistic-minded: it could be argued that some of the first-year divorces in 2009 were actually from 2008 marriages, but if you average out the numbers between the two years, the results are quite similar.)


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, politics, Portugal. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Subtle discrimination

  1. Célia says:

    What that newspaper is trying to say is: “Look, after so much fight to be able to get married, now they are divorcing. Which proves the law alteration was a waste of time.”

    So, so, so sad.

    • oregon expat says:

      I agree. And what’s really sad is that the vast majority of readers will simply accept this message, and never think about it critically. The article does give readers the numbers they need to figure it out themselves, but I don’t expect too many folks to do their own math.

  2. Ana_ñ says:

    I don’t see the “subtle” part of your headline. It is clearly discrimination, period.
    As I like statistics, I found these data for you in the Instituto Nacional de Estatística:
    Portugal – 2009
    Marriages = 40391
    Divorces after 1 year or less of marriage = 1349
    That is 3.34%


    • oregon expat says:

      Ana_ñ, thank you for these stats (and our follow-up email exchange). I’ve updated the post with the new figures — which make the Portugal News’s bias and lack of diligence look even worse than it did before.

      • Scout says:

        Wait, it gets even worse…

        My brother and I were discussing this statistic and it isn’t fair to compare heterosexual couples who have divorced after one year to same-sex couples who have divorced after one year. The ability to marry has only been available to same-sex couples for one year, however many of the couples that got married have been together and “married” far longer than that. The numbers are potentially even more skewed. It might be more appropriate to compare the number divorces in one year to the number of marriages in the same year to get a more accurate statistic… However, until we have any more long term stats, it will be a poor comparison.

        I have to say, I had a good giggle when I read that “four couples have already divorces,” as if four (out of 410) was a large number…??? Does the writer have any number sense at all? Perhaps reporters should be required to pass a statistics class before they are allowed to publish any articles with numbers in them!

  3. JR says:

    I find it baffling that heterosexual married couples don’t understand that one of the BIG advantages they enjoy is the right to get legally divorced (setting aside religious weddings/restrictions). I could write another dissertation on development of the no-fault divorce as a feminist victory, but even setting my feminist politics aside, I don’t see why straight people don’t understand that one great benefits of state-sanctioned marriage is having a legal framework in place to dissolve that marriage in a way that protects the interests and property of both parties (in theory). I wouldn’t go into a marriage thinking, “Great, I can hire a lawyer if I need a divorce!” but still, that option is available only to legally wed couples. My partner and I have been together for 18 years, and man, if we ever had to divide our property in a fair and equitable manner…gah. Not that you could ever divide 5 cats in any manner, but still.

    • oregon expat says:

      Agreed (though my mind is somewhat stuck on the idea of dividing 5 cats). In defense of this lack of understanding, it is human nature to take for granted those things that have always been available. After all, you and I probably don’t often think about the huge advantage we enjoy every time we turn on our hot water tap.

      • snjr22 says:

        Ah…well…I work in India, so I’m not *too* likely to take anything regarding water for granted (especially showers). But I concede your point. And I concede your original point, too, which was that the author is biased, used an inflammatory headline, and (deliberately?) misconstrued the divorce statistics. So, good job on calling the newspaper on it. I hope they print your letter to the editor.

        I guess I’m still a little hesitant to rely on an argument that depends on divorce stats, though. Partly, that’s because I know that the minute those two stats reverse, I’m going to hear, “See? You lesbians are doing it wrong! We really shouldn’t have extended marriage rights to you!” But mostly I think my hesitance stems from the fact that I can’t seem to assign much meaning to divorce stats. C. and I have been together for more than 18 years, so I guess that means we’re good at this marriage thing (or we can’t figure out how to divide up the cats). Then again, C. was with someone else for 10-1/2 years before we got together and I was with someone for 2-1/2 years, so what does that mean? That we don’t actually know how to be married? Do those break-ups somehow cancel out our marriage, 2-to-1?

  4. CoolNik says:

    Perhaps you should write to the Editor and provide a rebuttal – your own marriage has passed the 1st anniversary test – how many years ago? Send in the stats that Ana has located after checking the source.

    Of course we must recognise that the newspaper is expected to provide profits to its owners/shareholders. A newspaper only sells when it creates excitement or interest in its readers. By making misleading statements like this that point out to the mainly heterosexual world how the minority is wasting or abusing the equal rights that have been extended to them, the newspaper is able to show its readers that extending marriage to same-sex couples was a waste of state money and resources when so many marriages end in divorce!

    Most readers don’t seem to think for themselves rather just repeat whatever the newspaper has told them as though it were correct.

    • oregon expat says:

      Actually I wrote a letter to the editor before the blog post — it was the writing of the letter that got me fired up enough to blog about it. Alas, I should have waited for Ana_ñ to do her digging first…

  5. xenatuba says:

    There are three of us that work out of my small substation. Dan and his wife have been married 28 years, Duane and his wife have been married 22 years (but they’re younger), Karyn and I for 27 years. This was pointed out by Duane just the other day who said “Not bad for a profession whose divorce rate is 70%”. Spoken by a real blue-collar guy who was amazed that it took a court decision for Karyn to get onto my health insurance and who sees no difference in our relationships, except that he and Jann have kids. One of my blessings there.

    When we got “domestic partenered” this year (on April Fool’s day) I had several folks ask me why, since we were already married. There are a lot of good people who are simply uninformed…

  6. Pip says:

    Heh. I actually feel slightly cynical, because the first thing I thought was, “Only four?”

  7. oregon expat says:

    xenatuba: You live and work in a great place! As for good people being uninformed, that is very true and a huge part of the problem — which is not helped by newspapers publishing misleading articles.

    JR: I don’t like using divorce stats either, but in this instance I did so as a direct counter to the newspaper’s misuse of them. However, I don’t believe those stats will reverse. I think they’ll eventually equalize…but not for many years.

  8. Malkor says:

    The fact that there are more newspapers of that kind out there is disturbing to me. I was certain that something like that could only be printed on the pages of a certain rag-paper in my country. And the thought of such manipulative writing reaching a large amount of people is even more disturbing, beause I had hoped, or better said was certain, that something like that could only happen where I live.

    As was mentioned above – since most people are too lazy, or simply not bright enough I sometimes fear, to reach their own conclusions they tend to take much they see/hear/read from the media at face value. Which is bad for it makes them susceptible to the kind of suggestive, and obviously biased, writing shown above.

  9. M. says:

    I am jealous. You see, I wish I could get angry at/moan and whine about/be offended by discriminating articles about gay marriages in local newspapers. But I can’t.

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