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James Peron

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What's Love Got to Do with It? Marriage, Tradition and Gays

Posted: 10/31/11 12:57 PM ET

For about six months, I have immersed myself in the study of the history of marriage and the debate around equality for same-sex couples. The reason is simple: it is the civil rights battle of our age.

The first thing I discovered is that I had to unlearn much of what I "knew," because common perceptions about the history of marriage are flat-out wrong. In fact, anyone who uses the term "traditional marriage" exhibits, by the use of the term, gross ignorance of the past. There is no traditional marriage, and what we know as marriage is very different from what marriage was in the past.

The idea that marriage is about love between two people is a modern concept. Love often had nothing to do with marriage. It was about politics, property, production, division of labor, and materialistic issues. For much of history, the ancients would speak of love as if channeling Tina Turner: "Oh, what's love got to do, got to do with it?"

When you consider that some of the first marriages in colonial America were between men and women who didn't know each other, you can see how love had little to do with it. For instance, "Between 1620 and 1622, about 150 'pure and spotless' women arrived in Virginia and were auctioned for about 80 pounds of tobacco to future husbands."

I've noticed that promoters of "traditional marriage" are the most misinformed, ahistorical participants in the debate. Much of what they claim is pure codswallop. While I can't dissect their mental processes, to the extent that they actually think about the issues, I suspect that some claims are not just fabrications but an intentional twisting of facts. This may not be true of rank-and-file "marriage advocates," but when it comes to leaders of the movement, I suggest that they are willfully ignorant or consciously dishonest.

The vision of marriage that they claim is traditional is uniquely modern and results from the influence of the Enlightenment, classical liberalism and the economic forces of modern capitalism. We are no longer primarily agricultural, so we no longer marry to preserve property; households are no longer centers of production, so division of labor is not beneficial. We have moved toward egalitarian marriages where woman are the legal equals of men -- a very nontraditional concept. These forces changed marriage substantially. What the right calls "traditional marriage" is not traditional at all, and most people, including conservatives, would not want to return to the past.

The history that anti-equality advocates such as Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Morse cling to is fictional. It did not exist. It is a policy equivalent to faith; it is a claim made without evidence or reason.

Just as they are ignorant about the past, they are clueless about the present, as well. Maggie Gallagher claims to know why same-sex couples marry. In the conservative Weekly Standard she claimed, "When gay-marriage advocates talk about the benefits of marriage, they are usually referring to a set of legal goodies -- which they often argue account for the material advantages married families display." Beware any time Gallagher claims to be speaking for her opponents.

There are legal "benefits" involved, but anyone who studies the issues finds that the main financial "benefit" that same-sex couples receive from marriage is removal of impediments or reduction of costs, not new "goodies" from Nanny State. For instance, gay couples pay more in inheritance taxes than similarly situated straight couples, because there is no exemption for the surviving spouse in a gay relationship, while there is for the Gallaghers of the world. When a heterosexual employee puts his or her spouse on their health insurance, it is not taxed as "income," as happens for gay couples. The legal system penalizes gay couples through a tax code that treats them unequally.

Gallagher actually claimed that allowing gay couples to marry would remove one "benefit": "[T]he ability to walk away from a partner's medical debts (or qualify for Medicaid regardless of the partner's income) is a legal benefit of non-marriage, unavailable to spouses..." Apparently, in Gallagher's moral universe, gay couples want to avoid marriage so they can refuse to pay debts. Quite honestly, in all the material I've read, I've never come across anyone arguing that gay couples shouldn't marry so as to avoid paying debts.

Studies have been done of gay married couples, detailing their reasons for marriage and what "benefits" they derive. While all people marry for multiple reasons, the prime motives are not the materialistic "goodies" that opponents denounce.

The number-one reason same-sex couples marry, stated by 93 percent of those in the study, was for "love and commitment." When it came to the impact of their marriage, 72 percent, the highest in this section of the study, said that marriage made them "feel more committed to my partner." The prime motive for marriage is love, and the prime result is greater commitment to one another. In other words, gay couples aren't unlike other couples. In second place was legal recognition of the relationship. Other issues included were related to their children, inheritance issues, and property issues. Only 13 percent said it had to do with health benefits.

But the "health benefits" they speak of is being able to include the spouse in an existing policy, an attempt to pay health care costs, not walk away from them. Gallagher and her cohorts need to paint gay people as "the other," who are very unlike their straight neighbors. In the age of the closet, that tactic worked. But today, too many have gay friends or family, and underneath it all they find that people are people -- gay or straight.