Did Gay People Get Married in the Past?

Roundup: Media's Take

Margot Adler, on NPR News (Feb. 23, 2004):

If you are talking about a single marriage law that covers both heterosexual and homosexual couples, the history of same-sex marriage is only three years old. Today such laws exist in the Netherlands , in Belgium , as well as two provinces in Canada , British Columbia and Ontario . Gay registered partnerships, the equivalent of civil unions, go back further. Denmark was the first country to legalize them in 1989. Norway followed in 1993. There are several other European countries with some form of domestic partnership arrangement.

Here in the United States , the legal history of attempts by gays to get a marriage license go back at least to the early 1970s. In 1971, two cases, one in Minnesota and one in Washington state, challenged bans on gay marriage. Both failed. Other cases followed. They, too, failed. In 1984, the Unitarian Universalist Association voted to approve ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions. Several other denominations followed.

If you go back further in time, facts are much harder to come by. There are historical examples of gays attempting to marry. Louis Crompton, Americas professor of English at the University of Nebraska , cites one. He is the author of "Homosexuality in Civilization." Crompton quotes the Venetian ambassador in Rome in 1578, describing an incident involving Portuguese and Spanish men.

Professor LOUIS CROMPTON (Author, "Homosexuality in Civilization"): And they were part of a group--and I'll quote what he wrote about them--"who had assembled in the church where they performed some ceremonies of a horrible wickedness which sullied the sacred name of matrimony." Two years later, the French philosopher Montaigne visited Rome and commented on the incident. And he identified the church, which is still standing, as the Church of St. John at the Porta Latina. The men were later captured and burned in the square in Rome where heretics were regularly executed.

ADLER: Many other examples of gay unions in history are contested. A controversial historian, the late John Boswell, claimed liturgical ceremonies in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches sanctioned gay unions, but many historians dispute his scholarship.

Mr. DANIEL MENDELSOHN ( Princeton University ): I thought that Boswell's book was extremely problematic.

ADLER: Daniel Mendelsohn is a writer who also teaches classics at Princeton University . He says the ceremony that Boswell describes, called the Adelphopoiesis, the making of brothers, was never meant as a marriage.

Mr. MENDELSOHN: People have always known about this ceremony, which he presented as this spectacular, new, earth-shaking find. It had always been satisfactorily explained as a sort of official blood-brother ceremony used to reconcile, say, the heads of warring clans.

ADLER: Mendelsohn says Boswell and others have also attempted to find gay marriage in the classical world. Ancient Greece and Rome are often seen as models of societies that accepted homosexuality. Mendelsohn says although there was one satirical ceremony in Rome where an emperor married a slave during a banquet, and in classical Athens there were clearly homosexual bonds...

Mr. MENDELSOHN: There was nothing like a marriage between men, which would have been looked on really with horror by most Athenians. You know, you had at some point this sort of boyfriend, but you were always supposed to be married to a woman, to procreate, to make babies who would grow up to be good Athenians.

ADLER: When you turn to indigenous societies, both past and present, there are some examples. Some Native American peoples have a concept of two-spirit people, people who are not tied to one gender. In some tribes, there are special ceremonies to determine if a child is a two-spirit person. Gilbert Herdt is a professor and director of human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University . He says the designation of someone as a two-spirit person can sometimes create a same-sex marriage.

Professor GILBERT HERDT (San Francisco State University): Which means that biologically, it may be a male, in the case of a male-male arrangement, but they have the designation of two-spirit, which means that the social role they take as two-spirit obviates or, if you like, overrules their biological gender.

ADLER: But not many people fall into this category. Herdt also argues that over the last few hundred years in the West, people who were not in heterosexual marriages with children have not been seen as true adults or accorded social and political power. In the postmodern world, he says, that definition is now being challenged socially, legally and scientifically by reproductive technologies.

Prof. HERDT: And that's why this whole debate is so dramatic and is so wrenching to people who come very much from the historical and cultural and religious perspective of the modern period. They deeply that a full person or a full citizen is someone who is heterosexually married and produces children. And they cannot accept that you would extend that definition to someone else.

ADLER: Perhaps this subtext is why, history or no history, the stakes in the battle over gay marriage are so high. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York .

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