Monday, May 25, 2009

Why they do the "I do" that they do.

If you are married here’s an experiment you can try. Start introducing your wife by saying: “This is my girlfriend….” Assuming you are a woman try: “This is my boyfriend…” Or, perhaps, you can introduce your spouse as your “roommate.”

How do you think that would change your relationship? I suspect several of the male readers would find their wives pulling out scissors and eyeing their scrotum while mentioning how she recently became pen pals with Lorena Bobbitt. Supposing you live to make this introduction more than once, precisely how do you think it will change how others perceive your relationship? Could it change the way your perceive your own relationship?

Words do matter and they do change how people perceive you and your relationship. When you say: “This is my wife,” it has far, far more meaning than calling the same woman, your “roommate” or “girlfriend.” Your wife would understand this immediately—hence the scissors and homage to Bobbitt. Had you referred to her (or him as the case may be) in this lesser term, and done so for years, do you think others would treat your relationship differently? Of course they would.

I would bet that if your relationship were described with entirely different terms how you, your spouse. and your relationship, are perceived and treated by others, would change in hundreds of small ways. Perhaps none of them, by themselves would be significant. But pile hundreds of small cuts together and you can bleed a patient to death. I would also suspect that such a steady drip of changed perceptions could even change how seriously you take your own relationship. How easy is it for you to leave your roommate? Your girlfriend? Your wife?

Many people argue that the issue of marriage equality is merely semantics. But words do matter. And sometimes they matter a great deal.

It is then interesting to see what happened in Massachusetts to those same-sex couples that married. How did this new description of their relationship change their lives? What did they get out of this change? Why did they do it?

It’s been five years since marriage equality became a reality in Massachusetts. Since then some 12,000 same-sex couples married. Recently a study was done of 558 men and women in same-sex marriages. And what the study shows is that words do matter.

One of the dumbest things I have heard come from conservatives is the absurd claim that the only reason gay couples wish to marry is because they want some unspecified “benefits.” I know two couples that married and benefits were not involved with either. In following the campaign for marriage rights I’ve seen very little discussion of financial benefits that might be gained. Certainly there would be some, but none of them seemed to be a major reason that couples marry.

This study of married same-sex couples, from the University of California, Los Angeles, confirms that benefits were a very minor issue for most couples. The number one reason given by gay couples, for their marriage, was “love and commitment.” That does not shock me. I am shocked that others seem surprised. I am shocked that others assumed that love and commitment weren’t the prime reason for such gay marriage. I guess I shouldn’t be, I’ve run across many people who really do believe that gay couples are somehow different from other couples.

Back in my university days I was taking a course on human sexuality that met three times a week. For whatever reason my professor asked me to guest lecture, or to led the sessions for one week. I don’t remember what two of the sessions were about, but the third session I do remember very well. Perhaps I shouldn’t confess this but I showed a 1977 German film, Die Konsequenz. This film, from director Wolfgang Petersen, starred Jürgen Prochnow and Ernst Hannawald. Due to absurd demands from various German trade unions the film was not available on video (it is now on DVD by the way). So I rented a commercial version of the film and then videotaped the screen while recording sound in another room (to avoid the sound of the massive film projector I had to rent to show the film).

I had seen the film a few years earlier at the Chicago International Film Festival, which was founded by a friend of mine . I remember watching The Consequence in a packed theater, every seat taken. When the film ended it was absolutely silent. No one spoke. The film had a strong emotional impact on everyone. The film depicted a relationship between an older man and a younger man where everyone, and everything, tried to rip them apart. Yet they fought to be together.

The reason that I so clearly remember showing the film in the university classroom is because the impact on the students was the same as it was in that theater. There was silence. I had to prod the students to speak. And the comment from one young man is something I’d never forget. He said, with a sense of bewilderment, “Who ever thought that gay couples could love each other that much?”

It was then that I realized that many people simply couldn’t comprehend that gay couples actually love one another. They can understand the sex part. But the idea of love seems alien to them. I suspect some things haven’t changed and that many people still can’t believe that love may be the basis of a same-sex relationship. Yet I know gay men who would die for their partner and some who willingly put their own life at risk to protect their partner.

This inability to recognize that gay people can love is partially behind the absurd idea that the only reason gay marriage is an issue is because homosexuals want benefits.

The second main reason for marriage, given by the couples themselves, was legal recognition of the relationship. A fifth said the reason was related to children that they had, 18% said it was because of inheritance issues, 14% said it was related to property issues and 13% said health benefits were involved. Inheritance and property issues are not “benefits” in the sense that the critics mean. At best, health insurance, might qualify as a “benefit” except it is a benefit paid for by the employee out of their wages. (Even when the employer “matches” this is recouped long-term by a decrease in wages.) None of the people listed “benefits,” as in money from the government, as a reason for marriage. The main reason gay couples marry is precisely the same reason straight couples marry: they love each other and are committed to each other. That some people find that surprising says much about them.

What the couples got out of their marriage is also interesting. Seventy-two percent said they are more committed to their partner because of the marriage. But they also found themselves closer to their families and to others as a result: 62% said their families were more accepting of their partner, 69% said they found greater acceptance from the community around them, and 42% said their own families were more accepting of them.

What I see here is a strengthening of social bonds. Two individuals, once alone in the world, are now committed to one another. They sustain each other and make each other stronger. As a result there is less likelihood that either will become a burden to others. They are stronger emotionally and better off financially. Their marriage also binds them closer to their families and to the community as a whole. All these are values that conservatives claim to embrace.

What is the cost? Conservatives, while they talk a lot about it, say very little of substance. There is supposed to be some unspecified threat to marriage caused by people getting married. What it is, however, never seems to be specified. They tend to repeat their premises in several different ways, as if restating it enough times will make it true. But for firm evidence—they isn’t any. As far as I can tell, they are basically arguing that if gay couples are allowed to marry then straight people will act badly as a result. I suspect that argument ought to insult straight people more than gay people.

The so-called “social costs” seem non-existent. Numerous studies show gay marriages would bring in millions in revenue in the form of wedding expenditures. Local government would receive license fees, whether we like it or not. There would be a reduction in some taxes where couples are allowed to file jointly, but so far that won’t apply to the federal income tax. I suspect that married couples are more stable financially and less likely to collect welfare and other benefits. They are more likely to save and plan for their future. I would even guess that married people are less likely to take “sick days” from work. Stable relationships basically are good for the economy. I’m not saying that this is why people ought to marry, but I am saying there is a public good that results from it.

The new chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, wanted to come up with a reason to deny equal rights to gay couples, yet not sound religiously bigoted. The best he could do was argue that if gays get married it will be unfair to small business since they suddenly may find they have workers with spouses and that drives up insurance costs. That is just absurd on several levels.

First, as I’ve already mentioned, all “fringe benefits” that one derives at work, even those ostensibly paid by the employer, actually comes out of wages. A benefit that is mandated by government policy merely displaces future wages. There may be a lag period for it to catch up but it does catch up. If it couldn’t come out of reduced future wages then it comes through reduced employment. These costs are borne by the workers no matter how government disguises the fact. This is pretty simply free market economics but then free markets are not something Republicans understand lately.

In addition, if Mr. Steele’s remarks were correct he just implied that businesses, in states where gay marriage is not legal, would be financially better off by firing straight workers and hiring gay workers instead. I can’t imagine he actually wanted that. He was just searching for a new rationale to deny gays equal rights. He said he wanted something that he thought the young would buy into since they weren’t buying into the older religious arguments.

Steele’s remarks, if properly understood, were actually a claim that marriage is bad for the economy. That is far more “anti-marriage” than allowing gay couples to get hitched. I suspect that even Steele knows his argument is absurd, he just hopes that young people don’t know it.

The reality is that allowing committed same-sex couples to marry is good for them. It is good for their families and for their communities. It is good for economy in general and good for business in particular. It doesn’t add burdens to anyone but reduces the likelihood of individuals needing assistance—all marriages do that. It doesn’t cost anything, on net, from the treasury. It is consistent with our libertarian ideals of equality of rights before the law. It doesn’t diminish the marriages of others, in spite of the blustering from the religious fanatics. All in all, marriage is a good thing and there is no downside in allowing loving couples to marry.

Note: On Tuesday the California Supreme Court will rule concerning the validity of Proposition 8. I’m not the least bit concerned about how it goes. If the court rules Prop 8 invalid, I would be pleased. Prop 8 is a disgusting, immoral piece of legislation that violates the fundamental principles of a free society. Those who voted for it should be ashamed; those who campaigned for it are disgusting. I will rejoice if it is stricken down. If it is not, which is also very possible, it won’t matter one bit. Prop 8 is a bump in the road; it is not the end of the road.

Petitions are ready to propose a new ballot initiative that would repeal Prop 8. I don’t see it having much problem collecting the required signatures. One petitioning expert I know said this would be a walk in the park to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. If the proponents are smart they will have it on the ballot in 2010 and their repeal will pass. Prop 8 barely won. Even since its passage there has been a shift in views and many people realize they made a mistake supporting it. The measure will be overturned. At that point you can bet the Religious Right won’t be appealing to the “will of the people.”