NOTICE: All stories in this OPINIONS section was submitted by members of the general public and are the personal opinions of individuals on certain current affairs and topics and NOT necessarily the view of Queerlife.co.za and its staff. -- Should you wish to voice an opinion on a specific subject you may submit it HERE.

4Men - Opinions

Letters and opinions from concerned male South African citizens on current affairs and issues affecting us all

The Curious History Of Gay Marriage

The Curious History Of Gay Marriage

By Faramerz Dabhoiwala (Submitted to QL by Ian Fraser and first published in the Guardian)

Same sex marriage seems a quintessentially 21st-century phenomenon. As the US supreme court justice Samuel Alito exclaimed in 2013, before voting against it, it was surely “newer than cellphones or the internet”. He has a point. Even in the western world, most straight people have still never met a married homosexual couple.

Its opponents decry the recent spread of gay marriage as political correctness gone mad. Its supporters, on the other hand, celebrate it as a sign of progress. Same-sex marriage was a very recent but welcome innovation, the American Historical Association has advised the supreme court. Equal marriage is unprecedented, the UK government agrees, but its introduction will make “our society fairer and more inclusive”. (Or, as Spencer’s elderly former neighbour put it when doorstepped by the Daily Mail: “Life is different now, you have to get with the times.”)

So, everyone presumes that gay marriage is a novelty. Its explicit legalisation is, of course, new. During the 1970s and 80s, some gay activists in the US sued for the right to marry, and a few same-sex couples even managed to obtain valid licences and to wed. But it was not until the 1990s that the modern movement towards marital equality began to make headway anywhere, and only in 2000 did the Netherlands become the first jurisdiction in the world to sanction same-sex weddings.

It’s remarkable how quickly the tide is turning. The Irish government has decided that a national referendum to amend the constitution and permit same-sex marriage will take place in May. And last week, in a surprisingly rapid turnaround, the US supreme court announced that it, too, will revisit the issue. It is possible that, by June, same-sex marriage will have become enshrined as a constitutional right. Even so, for now, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland, in several states in the US and across most of the world. The centuries-long stigmatisation and criminalisation of same-sex relations is far from over.

Yet this does not mean we cannot speak of homosexual marriages before the 21st century. Marriage is not just a legal creation. Despite the perennial efforts of rulers and priests to control and define matrimony, countless couples in the past simply married themselves, without formalities. As early as the 12th century, the Christian church codified the principle that the only thing required for an unbreakable wedlock was that a man and woman exchanged vows. There was no need for any priest, witnesses or ceremony. It was the couple themselves who made the marriage.

In 17th-century England, paupers were sometimes forcibly prevented from marrying: however, they often lived together as husband and wife. The same was true of enslaved men and women in the US before the civil war, who could not legally wed, and of interracial couples in many states until the later 20th century. Not until 1967 did the supreme court finally end such bigotry.

It is easy to think of other governments and institutions in which discriminatory laws have prevented heterosexual couples from formalising their unions – Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa … the Church of England, and, of course, the British royal family. In the 1780s, George, Prince of Wales fell passionately in love with Maria Fitzherbert. In December 1785 they were married by one of his own chaplains, in front of several witnesses and with a certificate in the prince’s own hand to prove it. Yet though their union lasted many years, until after he became king in 1811 (and long after his arranged marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795), it was technically illegal – because he was the heir to the throne and she was a Catholic.

Even after the Marriage Act of 1753 invalidated it in England, self-marriage remained a powerful idea. (Until nonconformist and civil weddings were legalised in 1836, some religious dissenters, too, continued the practice.) As the composer Samuel Wesley wrote angrily to his nagging mother in 1792, about his unsolemnised relationship with Charlotte Martin, “she is truly and properly my wife by all the laws of God and Nature … she can never be made more so … by a million of ceremonies, repeated myriads of times”. The future George IV took the same view when, ignoring his legal wife, he bequeathed everything he possessed to “Maria Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart and soul … such she is in the eyes of Heaven; was, is, and ever will be such in mine”.

In the US, informal marriage was even more widespread and generally accepted. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, most states upheld their citizens’ rights to nuptial freedom and privacy. If a man and woman lived together as husband and wife, that was enough – it was presumed that they were married.

So what about same-sex couples? When did they start thinking of themselves as married? And how were such unions viewed by the people around them? It turns out that same-sex marriage has a rather longer history than is usually thought.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by marriage. The history of many Native American, African and Asian cultures includes same-sex and transgender conjugal unions. But examples of formal religious ceremonies in which two men who love each other are solemnly wedded together for life can be found across Europe, throughout classical antiquity and until the end of the middle ages.

Such unions of sworn kinship or ritual brotherhood were entered into by kings and aristocrats, by comrades in arms, and by men in all sorts of other social contexts – in the 14th century, Chaucer described sworn brotherhood between merchants, monks, clerks, and even peasant farmers.

To “wed” another man in this way was to plight one’s troth, to covenant for life, to express the highest form of love that one person could for another. In that sense, as the classicist James Davidson has pointed out, such “same-sex weddings are much closer to modern companionate marriages than the heir-centred, family-allying and often family-arranged marriages of former times”. In any deeply patriarchal culture, it was easy to presume that love between men was the noblest and most exquisite kind. It was the passion of David and Jonathan, of Achilles and Patroclus, and of countless popular ballads.

Yet beyond their testimony to centuries of publicly celebrated same-sex love, the precise meaning (and incidence) of such unions remains unclear. It seems most plausible to see them as a type of “voluntary kinship” – an intense form of ritualised male friendship, rather than an exclusive or sexual partnership. Wed-brotherhood did not imply cohabitation or sex (though in some cases, such as Edward II and Piers Gaveston, it might have); nor did it preclude heterosexual marriage.

The language used by King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was very similar. They addressed each other as loving father and son, and as men bound to each other as “gossips” (ie god-siblings, or godparents). Only once did James mix these metaphors of kinship with a conjugal ideal. “My only sweet and dear child,” he wrote in 1623 to Villiers, “I had rather live banished in any part of the Earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you.” He hoped “that we may make at Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter … God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”

For all its emotional intensity, this was not the language of gay marriage but of a patriarchal ruler. Like other monarchs, James spoke easily of himself as the benevolent husband and father of his people, his kingdom and his parliament. Buckingham’s letters, on the other hand, invariably began “My dear dad and gossip”, and ended “Your majesty’s most humble slave and dog”. He loved James. He felt from him “more affection than between lovers in the best kind, man and wife”. But he could not conceive of really being married to anyone but his own wife.

This was easier to do in Renaissance Italy, where it was much more socially acceptable (though still illegal) for same-sex love to extend to sodomy. In 1497, the 22-year-old apothecary Carlo di Berardo d’Antonio was fined and banished from Florence for living with the dyer Michele di Bruno da Prulli (also fined), who had “for many, many years kept him as his wife and in place of a wife”, and had made him swear in church, on the Bible, “to remain faithful to Michele in this sodomitical vice”, using essentially the same ritual as a heterosexual wedding. Almost 100 years later, in Rome in 1578, a group of Portuguese men were burned at the stake for likewise “marrying each other and being joined together as husband and wife” openly in church.

More generally, though, and certainly in the English-speaking world, men did not tend to live together as conjugal couples. Passionate friendship and love between men took lots of different forms. But from James I to Oscar Wilde, and beyond, a man who loved other men was also quite likely to wed a woman and have children with her. If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, for the last 400 years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women.

To begin with, this was a secretive and punishable matter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: households were supposed to be headed by men. Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. After 1600, as the Dutch scholars Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol discovered, examples of such “female husbands” become much easier to find, especially in England, Germany and Holland.

In Amsterdam in 1641, the middle-aged widow Trijntje Barents fell in love with 27-year-old Hendrickje Lamberts. Some time into their affair, Hendrickje began to dress as a man. This improved their sex life, Barents later confessed – from then on, the younger woman “sometimes had carnal knowledge of her two or three times a night, just as her late husband had – yes, and sometimes more arduous than he”. They were a settled couple, who wished they could legally marry. Other Dutch couples did just that. In the 1680s, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel disguised herself as a man in order to wed her long-time lover, Elisabeth Boleyn, in an Amsterdam church. They were only found out years later, when Cornelia tired of wearing men’s clothes.

Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early 1730s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. Mary put on male clothes and turned herself into “James How”. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: s/he served as the foreman of juries, on the night watch, as overseer of the poor. For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.

It is impossible to tell how many other female husbands lived undetected with their wives. Quick, secret marriages were easy to contract in London until the 1753 act: there was a busy trade in no-questions-asked ceremonies in taverns, brothels, prisons and chapels. On 15 December 1734, a Soho couple calling themselves John Mountford and Mary Cooper decided to get hitched. The first clergyman they approached refused to do it. “Suspected 2 women”, he wrote in his notebook. But they would easily have been able to find another priest. A few years later, a London minister performed the wedding of Elizabeth Huthall and John Smith, “a little, short, fair, thin man, not above 5 foot”. Afterwards, he wrote “my clerk judged they were both women”, but they left as a legally married couple. “After marriage I almost could prove them both women,” runs yet another laconic cleric’s note, “the one was dressed as a man.” That pair, too, departed happily married. (Bishops and legislators take note: same-sex marriages have already taken place within the Church of England.)

Sometimes it seems that female husbands were what we would now call intersex or trans. Long before the modern transgender movement, individuals and communities grappled with the potential fluidity of sex and gender. After the Virginia settler Thomas Hall (who had grown up as Thomasine) was accused of fornication with a maid, a Jamestown court ordered in 1629 that he dress in a mixture of male and female clothing, because “he is a man and a woman”. Maria van Antwerpen (1719-1781) dressed and lived as a man for much of her life, repeatedly married other women and argued that “she was in appearance a woman, but in nature a man”, though anatomically she seems to have been entirely female.

Even where we can speak more straightforwardly of a “same-sex” relationship, the phenomenon of female husbands (which continued into the 19th and 20th centuries) raises obvious questions about the knowledge and complicity of the wives, families, friends and communities with whom they lived. It is fitting that the most sensitive interpreter of this fragmentary and opaque evidence, Emma Donoghue, is a brilliant novelist as well as a scholar. For, as she explored in her first book, Passions Between Women (Scarlet), almost nothing about these cases is clear-cut – except the inescapable fact that, even three or four centuries ago, it was not unheard of for two women to cohabit in >marriage.

By the end of the 18th century, the world had changed. From this point on it became increasingly possible for women to live together openly in western society. The growth of cities, the expansion of domestic service, the development of textile trades and the spread of schooling for girls all created new opportunities for unmarried women to travel away from home, make a living and meet one another.

The 18th century also saw a revolution in ideas about male and female sexuality, which created a new cult of female friendship. In poetry, fiction and real life, innocent love between women came to be celebrated on an unprecedented scale – as an elevated and enduring passion, and a crucial support to courtship and marriage. The cultivation of intense same-sex relations became as important to middle- and upper-class womanhood as being a daughter, wife or mother.

This was the world into which Charity Bryant was born in 1777. She was the youngest child of a Massachusetts doctor – educated, spirited and constantly at odds with her crabby father and domineering stepmother. When she turned 20, they threw her out, and she became an itinerant schoolteacher. By the age of 23 she had decided she would never marry. “Such a thing will never take place,” she wrote to her sister-in-law, “thousands in the world may call me a fool but I do not feel that their different opinions would add to my internal felicity … I cannot form that connexion on the only principle which I think will be productive of happiness.”

Instead, she channelled her emotional energy into a succession of passionate attachments to other young women. For several years she kept up a secret correspondence, and spent as much time as possible, with Mercy Ford, who lived in a nearby village. “Comfort is alone with you,” Mercy wrote, “my dear how much I want to see you I cannot tell you”; “I shall come if ever I can run away in the night”; they should “take what we can git and be thankfull for it”. In 1805 their parents became alarmed and put a stop to it.

By that time, Charity had already met Lydia Richards, another peripatetic teacher, with whom she managed to cohabit intermittently at other people’s houses. “How sweet is mutual love,” Lydia exclaimed to Charity in 1802. “Oh that we might once more experience its sweets, clasped in each other’s arms.” Your head belongs “on my bosom, and at night you should repose in my arms!”.

In 1807, on the eve of turning 30, Charity made a new start. She moved to the tiny frontier town of Weybridge, in western Vermont, and set up as a seamstress. Here, she met Sylvia Drake, seven years her junior, the sister of a friend. Within a few months, she had rented a room of her own, hired the younger woman as her apprentice and urged her to move in as soon as possible. “I not only want you to come to assist me but I long to see you and enjoy your company and conversation,” she stressed. The very next day, she recalled decades later, using some telling underlining and crossings-out, Sylvia “consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion in labor”.

The following year, the couple built themselves a single-roomed house and tailoring shop. Charity ordered a ring. They took the first of several trips back to Massachusetts, where Charity introduced her friends and relations to her new mate. “I need be under no apprehensions concerning your welfare while so dear and faithful a friend as Miss Drake is your constant companion,” her sister Anna wrote afterwards. Lydia Richards gave Sylvia her blessing as “the friend of your heart and partner of your cares … may you long be happy in each other”. “She is everything I could wish,” Sylvia wrote to her mother. Over the next 44 years, until Charity’s death in 1851, they never spent a night apart. “In their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life,” one of her nephews wrote in the New York Evening Post in 1843: their union was “no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage”. When Sylvia died in 1868, their families buried them together, under a joint headstone.

The past is unalterable. But what we see in it depends on our present preoccupations. Once you begin to look, similar couples can be found all over the place. Go to the tiny village of Northrepps, on the Norfolk coast, and you’ll see many public testaments to the union of Anna Gurney and Sarah Buxton, scholars, campaigners, educationists and philanthropists. From 1823 until Sarah’s death in 1839, the “cottage ladies” lived as a couple. They referred to each other as “my faithful and beloved Partner”, they were buried together in the family plot, and in their parish church they are commemorated forever as “Partners and chosen sisters knit together in the love of God”.

Or consider such power couples as Sarah Robinson and Barbara Montagu, Frances Power Cobbe and Mary Lloyd, and Willa Cather and Edith Lewis. These were women at the heart of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century intellectual society, the friends and colleagues of many of its leading writers and thinkers.

In the 1980s, the pioneering lesbian historian Lillian Faderman argued that such passionate female relationships should be called “romantic friendships”. Before the 20th century, she asserted, sex between women was largely unimaginable, even to those who lived and slept together. Like the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who eloped together in 1778, shared a bed for more than 50 years, and referred to each other as “My sweet love” and “My better half”, female couples “were probably happy to be oblivious to their genitals”.

Yet more recent scholarship takes exactly the opposite view. Why should heterosexuality be presumed when a man and a woman share a bed, yet homosexual acts always have to be explicitly proven? Both in the past and the present, silence about sex can be willed or artificial: it doesn’t always imply an absence of knowledge or action. The pathbreaking publication by Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington of the private writings of Anne Lister, the Yorkshire gentlewoman and lesbian rake, proved that at least some contemporaries of Bryant and Drake in England, France and Italy did feel themselves to be part of a subculture of women who loved, and had sex, with one another. And, as is increasingly recognised, Georgian and Victorian culture was as full of female as of male homoeroticism.

Now Bryant and Drake’s story has been reinterpreted accordingly. In a new book, Charity and Sylvia (OUP), Rachel Hope Cleves draws on family papers, diaries, memoirs and poems to reconstruct their lives much more fully than ever before, and to weave them into the larger history of the early American frontier. It is a triumph of painstaking research, and a moving love story.

No direct evidence about their physical relations survives, but Cleves has never met an innuendo she can’t exploit. Whenever a female poet describes a vale in a landscape, she must be alluding to pudenda. When Charity mislays something private at Mercy’s house, her biographer’s first thought is of a homemade dildo (“Charity could have used her sewing skills to construct one”). When a devout Christian confesses to being “a person of unclean lips”, the discussion inevitably turns to cunnilingus.

It is undoubtedly refreshing to have one’s presumptions of heterosexuality turned on their head. Yet the problem remains that many cohabiting romantic friendships surely were sexless by our standards, and self-consciously so. Among high-minded women (and men), the sublimation of physical urges was a virtue to be proud of, a pleasure in itself. The American abolitionist and feminist Mary Grew argued that her lifelong companionship with Margaret Burleigh was both “a closer union than that of most marriages”, and entirely chaste: “love is spiritual, only passion is sexual”. “I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic,” mused Lister after visiting the Ladies of Llangollen in 1822, but even she, with her exquisitely tuned gaydar, was unsure.

A more fruitful conclusion is that, just as there is more to love than sex, we ought to think of the sexual as encompassing more than genital intercourse. It is impossible not to notice the eroticism of intense same-sex friendships, or the many forms of bodily contact they legitimated, even between women (or men) who were not lovers: kisses, caresses, embraces, pressing heads against bosoms, lying and sleeping in each other’s arms. For Butler and Ponsonby, Bryant and Drake, and other female couples, nursing each other through illness was an especially common way of expressing physical love and devotion. Instead of the old dichotomies between friends and lovers, innocents and lesbians, acts and identities, the history of sexuality is increasingly concerned to explore what role the erotic played in different kinds of physical intimacy, personal relationships and emotional cultures.

How, then, should we describe Bryant and Drake’s relationship? Cleves’s argument is uncompromising. Even the family tree on her opening page baldly asserts that Charity and Sylvia’s relationship was identical to that of all the husbands and wives around them. Seldom can the single letter “m” have stood for such a large claim.

Contemporary examples of ritualised female marriage are not hard to find. Two of Lister’s long-term flames fantasised about marrying her in male disguise. A third, Marianna Belcombe, wed a much older widower for money in 1816 – but not before first exchanging wedding rings with Lister, and taking the sacrament with her to solemnise their union. In their minds, this was the real marriage: “she is my wife in honour & in love”, Lister declared. In 1825 they renewed their vows, taking clippings of each other’s pubic hair, kissing it and placing it in lockets “for us always to wear under our clothes in mutual remembrance”. In the early 1830s, having moved on, Lister proposed to a neighbouring landowner, Ann Walker. To mark their union, the couple exchanged rings and took communion together in church on Easter Sunday. Then they revised their wills, merged the management of their estates, and set up house together. This caused some public consternation, but Anne’s new wife was treated by her relations as “one of the family”.

In Bryant and Drake’s case, the evidence is more circumstantial and indirect. “I consider you both one, as man and wife are one,” Charity’s sister-in-law wrote to them in 1843. They lived as a couple, and were treated as one – both by those who approved and by those (like many of Sylvia’s relations) who did not. Is that enough? After all, marriage is as much a social as a sexual or legal creation. It is an arguable case, but also a potentially misleading one.

For the biggest drawback in viewing this or any same-sex relationship in the past primarily as a marriage is that it marginalises other, now less familiar, ways that the couple and their friends thought of their union: as sisters in Christ, as intimate friends, as partners, as bosom companions. These were not lesser options, or mere euphemisms for marriage, but powerful, overlapping alternatives to it.

Nineteenth-century female couples often used the language of “husband” and “wife”. But the mother-daughter metaphor was even more popular, and there were many others. Women drew on a great variety of familial, religious, scientific and literary models to describe their unions.

Because it was a personal creation rather than an official status, same-sex marriage was always more tenuous but also more flexible than its heterosexual counterpart. It is striking how often same-sex couples eulogised their relationship as “better” or “more” or “closer” than ordinary marriage. The ability to see same-sex marriage in earlier centuries should not blind us to all the ways in which it was different from the heterosexual variety.

Homosexual marriage in the past was, therefore, not the same as in the present. But that is, of course, equally true of male-female unions. “Thank God!” exclaimed Sir Dudley Ryder, the attorney general, back in 1753, rejecting the idea that marriage was an immutable, divine institution, “we have in this age got the better of this, as well as of a great many other superstitious opinions.” You’d have thought that, by now, it would have been a dead and buried superstition.

In fact, the only historical constant about the definition of marriage is that it has always been contested. Two hundred years ago, marriage reform was an even more central political and social issue than it is today. After years of agitation, fundamental changes were made to the laws of divorce, marital property and women’s conjugal rights. Some radicals went further still, completely rejecting marriage as an oppressive, patriarchal institution: that, too, has always been a proud homosexual tradition.

A final great question was whether to permit multiple marriage. On both sides of the Atlantic, polygamy was seriously discussed, and put into practice, by the Mormons and other groups. That was why, in the 1850s, the English-speaking world’s leading philosopher of human rights, John Stuart Mill, chose to make it the culminating example of his great manifesto, On Liberty.

To Mill it was evident that Mormonism was, like all religion, “the product of palpable imposture”, and marriage in general was obviously unjust to women, so that, in fact, he himself abhorred polygamy. But that was irrelevant; it should be allowed. After all: as it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.

Human happiness and social progress depended on such freedom. It’s not a bad parallel for our modern debates on same-sex marriage. And let’s see how long it takes before polygamy is back on the agenda.


** Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s new book "The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution" is out in paperback from Penguin. **

Join us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Keep up with us on Pinterest Join our Google Plus circle Join us on Tumblr