Historians of same-sex marriage take great care to place the modern debate over the legality of gay marriage into an historical framework. The debate has taken on a sharply political dimension in recent years, a culmination of some 40 years of heightened tension surrounding the cultural question. That question is not easily answered because it is complicated by societal and individual interpretations of standards. The historical framework surrounding the debate supports both sides, from claims based upon religious texts to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, the debate has often not been civil, and those who are the subject of the debate have suffered emotional and physical violence (and unequal protection) as their societies have struggled to answer the question. While repression is not unique in the history of gay rights and gay marriage, neither is the alternative. At times throughout history, same-sex relationships have enjoyed relative freedom within their respective places.
Same-Sex Relationships in Early Civilization
Ancient evidence survives of kingdom-sanctioned, same-sex cohabitation, as in the tomb drawings of Niankhkhnum and KhnumhotepEvidence exists that same-sex marriages were tolerated in parts of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Artifacts from Egypt, for example, show that same-sex relationships not only existed, but the discovery of a pharaonic tomb for such a couple shows their union was recognized by the kingdom. Meanwhile, accounts of the Israelites' departure for Canaan include their condemnation of Egyptian acceptance of same-sex practice. In actuality, same-sex marital practices and rituals are less known in Egypt compared to Mesopotamia, where documents exist for a variety of marital practices, including male lovers of kings and polyandry. None of the recorded laws of Mesopotamia, including the Code of Hammurabi, contain restrictions against same-sex unions despite the fact that marriages are otherwise well regulated (Eskridge).
Classical antiquity in the Western world is frequently cited for examples of same-sex love and relationships, though separate concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality did not exist in the same way as today. Plato’s Symposium, for example, describes instances of homosexual attraction and same-sex relationships in ancient Greece without condemnation. Some point to examples of same-sex interaction in Greek artwork as further evidence of its equal status within the society. Individual, higher status, however, was of critical importance to free expression of love.
Status enabled older men, beginning in their 20s and 30s to act as mentor to a younger male who had not yet reached adulthood. The relationship consisted of a standardized courtship ritual and the basic belief that male attraction to other men was typically considered to be a sign of masculinity. Same-sex unions were known to have occurred in addition to opposite-sex marriages, existing simultaneously as an educational union available between teacher and pupil, for both men and women outside of their heterosexual arrangement. Such beliefs were not universal in ancient Greece, however. Some states disapproved of the rituals and relationships (Pickett).
The main considerations in same-sex relationships in early history were often love, beauty, and excellence of character rather than gender. There was also a cultural-religious basis for homosexual practice. Greek mythology records “same-sex exploits” by gods as high ranking as Zeus. And the epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, contain poetic passages that suggested homoerotic love to the educated hearer. But the culture underwent a transition during which homosexual expressions of love went from overt to covert (Dynes).
Roman social customs are relatively well known, and same-sex unions existed as high in society as among Roman emperors. Roman statesman Cicero also documented legal rights of an individual within a same-sex marriage. Female same-sex unions seemed to have been less common, but only because women enjoyed less freedom in their economic and social endeavors (Eskridge).
Over time, Rome experienced a similar trajectory as Greece between the early republic and the later empire, and negative attitude toward same-sex unions and non-procreative sexuality increased with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Pickett). By the fourth century, anxiety toward obviously pervasive same-sex unions reached a peak when the state passed a law promising punishment to anyone entering a same-sex marriage (Eskridge).
Western Religious Attitudes of Same-Sex Sexuality
Religious texts are widely interpreted to prohibit same-sex unions of any kindBiblical attitudes toward homosexuality are often reduced to strict condemnation based upon passages interpreted from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, though some scholars suggest that the description of same-sex relationships as “unnatural” only means “out of the ordinary” and not “immoral” (Pickett). Leviticus chapters 18 and 20, however, seems to be clearer in its punishment of homosexual men (along with condemnation of adulterous women, incest, and the ritual sacrifice of children). Ultimately, the influence of a Christian focus on procreation as central to marriage became apparent in Roman law during the later empire.
Sexuality, in other words, and not just homosexuality came under attack by a growing religious belief that intercourse was meant only for the production of children. Ultimately, excessive sexual indulgence of any kind both inside and outside the bonds of marriage was prohibited by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with the most sever condemnation saved for homosexuality, particularly of men (Ishay).
Same-Sex Unions throughout Time and Place
Eastern religions varied in their attitude toward homosexuality, though they were frequently much more neutral than their Western counterparts. Less specific to same-sex marriage, many of the texts make a statement as to their position on homosexual behavior.
The sacred texts in the Hindu tradition, the Vedas, did not restrict homosexuality, but rather viewed it as a perversion. Mixed-race relationships were considerably more offensive in the early tradition. Japanese Buddhism records the most tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, in essence praising it for its mystery (Ishay). Today, there are no religious or political limitations on homosexual behavior in Japan. Sexuality remains a private matter among consenting adults, but there is not yet legal recognition of homosexual unions (McLelland).
Later Buddhist texts in Asia—including Tibet, China, and the Indian subcontinent—were likewise neutral on the subject. Today, romantic love between same-sex couples remains largely opposed to the political norm in modern-day India, but Hindu tradition provides for some freedom for praiseworthy and devoted same-sex unions within communities, where the elders officially decide what constitutes an acceptable marriage. Ultimately, the Indian state does not provide the same array of privileges to married couples as some Western governments, so many such marriages simply are not reported and remain sanctioned within their own community. Without such local sanctions, same-sex couples are typically not free to marry in India (Vanita).
Confucianism strongly emphasized the importance of family and lineage, but did not punish homosexuality as severely as it did adultery. “As long as one fulfilled familial and social obligations . . . Confucians did not single out homosexual behavior for special rebuke” (Ishay). On the contrary, there existed occasions for same-sex bonds or contracts for both women and men. Though traditional historical sources in China tended to not cover practices that deviated from standard social forms, some researchers have found evidence of institutionalized male homosexuality and companionate unions in stories and plays that seem representative of a larger subculture (Sullivan).
European conquest and colonization provides some of the best insight to marital and sexual practices of indigenous peoples across the globe. Examples of same-sex behavior, including transgenerational same-sex unions, have emerged everywhere from New Guinea to Polynesia (and were also prevalent in feudal Japan). The most numerous early accounts of same-sex, transgendered unions exist from European encounters with indigenous people in both North and South America.
The originally derogatory term berdache described transgendered “two-spirit” people prevalent in most of the tribes. Individuals, both male and female, assumed characteristics and roles of the opposite gender and lived out those roles within their tribes. These relationships are easily perceived as “homosexual” by outside observers, but it is clear that the Western delineations of heterosexuality and homosexuality would not have been understood within these societies. Nevertheless, these same-sex marriages had equal cultural and legal recognition within their communities and offered special advantages for the couples, particularly for women berdaches (Rupp, Eskridge).
Similar berdaches and same-sex-style marriages were found among cultures in Africa, and also included an arrangement known as “female husbands.” Often barren, these women assumed the cultural roles of men, including having the same rights as men—which included seeking damages if her wife should have relations outside of their union without her consent. The berdache tradition of same-sex marriage, in various forms, is also well documented throughout Asia, from eunuchs in China to hijras in India (Eskridge).
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in Pre-Modern West
At various times in history, even church-sanctioned same-sex marriages have been conductedThe rise of Christianity and dominance of the church in Medieval Europe was largely detrimental for same-sex relationships. There is some evidence that same-sex relationships enjoyed relative freedom through the early Middle Ages. European secular law had few recorded limitations on same-sex behavior, and there is even evidence in the literature of the clergy of compassion for homosexuality, notably within the clergy itself (Pickett).
The church seemed to be tolerant of same-sex unions in practice and made some provisions for ceremonies commemorating the companionate brotherhood. John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexualitydocuments homosexual marriages performed by gay clerics dating back to the fourth century. On the other hand, the church seemed obligated to be critical of non-procreative unions, and questions of translation and interpretation surround some of the documents and ceremonies from the early Middle Ages (Sullivan).
It was in the thirteenth century, however, that the first laws against sodomy emerged and began to be enforced. Through the next several centuries in the West, all manner of behavior deemed deviant or unnatural began to be condemned, causing a shift from the earlier belief that same-sex unions were “problematic” because they were interpreted as unnatural to the belief that same-sex unions were a serious threat to society—and, like heretics, witches, and Jews, practitioners of such unions were violently repelled. Moreover, by the nineteenth century, heterosexuality became understood as the standard sexual orientation. Deviations to the norm became understood as diseases which, if not treated, should be suppressed. As a result, same-sex marriage was largely prohibited throughout the West. Meanwhile, missionaries from Western churches forcibly converted indigenous practices (Eskridge). The peak of discrimination came under the Nazi regime, where homosexuals were among the many victims classified as of an inferior race (Ishay).
Etymology of “Homosexuality” and “Gay” Marriage
A major example of the kind of theory being developed on the European continent in the nineteenth century came from Austrian-born Hungarian psychologist Karl Benkert (later changed to Karoly Maria Kertbeny). Kertbeny is credited with the coining of the term “homosexuality,” but more importantly suggested the belief that homosexuality is inborn and one of four natural sexual divisions. Because homosexuality is natural, he posited, laws against it are fundamental violations of human rights. Of course, other researchers persisted in believing that homosexuality was a disease (having a very different understanding of “natural law”) and, as a result, continued to pursue a cure while further embedding the argument against homosexuality in Western science and literature. In the twentieth century, the “cure” included electro-shock therapy.
The term “homosexuality” is often used in explaining a person’s “sexual orientation,” with the intent to challenge the belief in the moral legitimacy of heterosexuality. A mid-century survey of nearly 200 societies around the world showed more than two-thirds generally accepted same-sex relationships, and that the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality are fluid (Homosexuality). Many of those societies permitted same-sex union or marriage to a varying degree.
While “gay” has been in the English language since about the thirteenth century, the word took on sexual connotations by the seventeenth century. Its original connotation of “lively and merry” could be applied to sexual behavior, though not to homosexual behavior until the early twentieth century. Today it is sometimes used only with respect to homosexual men and not in the derogatory way as it once was (Gay).
In the public arena, the terminology has important significance, particularly in the current American debate, which persists in relegating gay relationships to a second-class, unnatural status.
Alternatively, recognition of “domestic partnerships,” or unions of same-sexed individuals, to allow the couple access to the same cultural benefits as different-sexed partners has begun to take hold in some parts of the United States. The idea has precedent in Scandinavia dating to as far back as 1989, when Denmark became the first country to allow legally sanctioned same-sex unions, coining the term “registered partnership.” Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium followed, with the Netherlands notably being the first to grant equal status of same-sex marriages to opposite-sex marriages. By 2005, Spain, France, Germany, and Canada would follow, to varying degrees of recognition.
The Stonewall Riots
As the civil rights movement rocked America in the middle of the twentieth century, the gay and lesbian rights movement also got its start. It was, however, a series of reactionary riots at the New York Stonewall Inn in 1969 that truly first defined the modern gay rights movement. The gay patrons of the bar at the inn fought back routine police raids, officially launching the gradual emergence of a national gay identity wherein individuals “came out of the closet and claimed [their] identity in great numbers” (Eskridge). From that emerging identity, couples formed unions which they considered to be “marriages,” but it would be decades before any state would legally recognize them because of the pervasive (usually Judeo-Christian) belief of an inherent legitimacy of the “natural” union of man and woman for its procreative power.
Studies of openly gay “marriages” during the Sixties and Seventies showed just as much longevity and stability among same-sex couples as their heterosexual counterparts, except same-sex couples were “terminally shackled by social prejudice, legal disadvantages, and economic discrimination” (Eskridge). The movement has evolved from seeking simple toleration of same-sex unions to the hope for legal recognition.
Federalism and the Defense of Marriage
The Defense of Marriage Act and prohibition of same-sex marriage are designed to protect “traditional” marriage but are also seen as violations of human rightsMany arguments have emerged against same-sex marriage in recent years, especially since individual states in America have begun sanctioning the unions. That a couple be able to produce children, let alone properly raise them, are not preconditions for marriage in the United States. Many religions, however, believe procreation to be central to human existence and that same-sex marriage represents a challenge to the interests and sanctity of heterosexual marriage. The question of gay marriage has been bitterly divisive in the political arena of many nations, but perhaps none more so than the United States.
In America, interpretations of a constitutional basis for equal access have lent support to the gay marriage movement. Some simply assert the role of the Supreme Court to ensure state’s legislation about marriage comply with the U.S. Constitution, which has provisions for rights to privacy and equal protection. Those provisions suggest marital discrimination to be unconstitutional. However, federalism in the U.S. reserves notions of family law for the states to determine, and the marriage laws of individual states need not be recognized by other states. That provision emerged from the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and, for the purpose of the law (including taxes, social security, immigration, and military benefits), defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
By that same year, a majority of states passed laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. But same-sex couples targeted a clause of Vermont’s constitution that guaranteed equal benefits and rights to all its citizens. The “common benefits” clause would either have to be stricken from the constitution, a controversial and time-consuming move, or the state would have to reach a compromise. Months of intense debate brought about “civil unions,” a term which caught fire in the United States. The state would recognize the unions for access to benefits but other states would not have to recognize them (PBS.org).
Other states and jurisdictions have begun to find room in their laws for same-sex couples to access the rights and benefits afforded their opposite-sex counterparts. Massachusetts, Iowa and, most notably, California have received the most attention, though several other states have had propositions hit their ballots and legislation passed in accordance with equal protection in their constitutions.
But the fierce debate over same-sex marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships continues, and some states did not hesitate to fully amend their constitution to prohibit all forms of unions involving same-sex couples. California’s Proposition 8 received intense media coverage because it illuminated a sharply divided public—and sharply divided interpretations of natural human rights. The conflict erupted in the wake of San Francisco’s decision to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses in 2004. Over 4,000 were granted in one month before the California Supreme Court halted the efforts of the city. By 2008, opponents of same-sex marriages managed to get an initiative to ballot to prohibit same-sex marriages, though existing domestic partnerships (who enjoyed many fewer privileges) would not be nullified. Voters passed the proposition and it was upheld by the highest state court before a federal court challenged it (PBS.org).Individual people, cities, states, and nations are continuing to grapple with the challenge of gay marriage given the divided opinion of their lawmakers and their constituents. Because opinions are rooted in millennia-old interpretations of social mores and pervasive beliefs in conceptions about what is “normal,” gay marriage remains a way of life on the outside looking in.
-- Posted February 4, 2011
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