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Same-Sex Marriage Pre-History



Reasonable Moderate Sam Alito and other theocrats claim that same-sex marriage is illegitimate because it is a brand new perversion of a perfect and long-lasting institution. This is of course hooey. First of all, much of the history of the United States is based around the right to marry the person of your choice and live a dignified life with that person. Let’s not forget that slaves could not marry.

If you have access via a library to the latest edition of the Journal of American History, I highly recommend Rachel Hope Cleves’ article on the prehistory of same-sex marriage. And if you can’t read it, she did a podcast you can listen to. She basically tracks down a long history of gay marriage, going back to berdaches among southwestern indigenous peoples through gold miners in 19th century California and to many cases throughout American history of people accepting marriage and marriage-like arrangements between same-sex couples. So much of our gay history, even from gay activists, comes from a touchstone that the past was a horrible place and that only after 1969 did things improve. This is not so dissimilar from our popular history of sexuality. Both on both counts, the history is much more complicated and if the 1950s and early 1960s were a period of repression of gays (and sexuality more broadly), before World War II, it’s a whole other country out there. Take the image above, which is in her article. This is a circa 1820 marriage silhouette of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant. Such silhouettes were common among married couples at that time. Drake and Bryant made a life together and maybe not everyone was comfortable with it, but they made it work, living as active church members in their Vermont community.

Even the New York Times could speak positively of same-sex marriages, at least in theory. This comes from Cleves’ article and the reference is an 1883 story uncovered of two women married to each other, one of whom was passing as a man.

Now that the Waupun public has succeeded in ascertaining that Mr. Dubois, the husband of Mrs. Dubois, is really a woman, it is assumed, as a matter of course, that the pair must separate. Public opinion will not tolerate the marriage of two women, and Mr. Dubois has escaped probable imprisonment and threatened tar and feathers by confessing her sex and agreeing to abandon her wife. At this distance from Waupun it may strike unprejudiced people that Mr. and Mrs. Dubois have been subjected to rather harsh treatment. If Mrs. Dubois chose to marry a woman, whose business was it? Such a marriage concerns the general public less than the normal sort of marriage, since it does not involve the promise and potency of children. It has been well established that if a woman chooses to wear trousers she has a right to wear them, and no one will venture to deny the right of any two women to live together if they prefer the society of one another to solitude. Why, then, has not Mrs. Dubois the right to live with another woman who wears lawful trousers, and why should so much indignation be lavished upon Mrs. Dubois’s female husband? There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men. The women who regard men as dull, tiresome creatures, incapable of understanding women, would find sympathy and pleasure in the society of female husbands.

These stories are important in fighting back against the false history of marriage pushed by theocrats. Yesterday’s passage of a discriminatory bill in Indiana shows just how important this is. While gay marriage seems like it will soon be universal, the theocrats will not give up and equal rights for all will need defense. A usable past is a key part of that defense.

….Another summary of the article in the Washington Post for those without access to the original.

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  • Alas, no such access – thanks for the post though. Fascinating.

    Here’s a photo with more of the NYT article’s text (it seems in fuller context to be disappointingly tongue-in-cheek), and a link to an interview about the article with historian Emily Skidmore, whose dissertation on the subject is also online: “EXCEPTIONAL QUEERNESS: DEFINING THE BOUNDARIES OF NORMATIVE U.S. CITIZENSHIP, 1876-1936.”

    • You can listen to the podcast at least!

    • rea

      it seems in fuller context to be disappointingly tongue-in-cheek

      Yeah, I don’t think that’s evidence of any willingness to actually tolerate lesbian marriage–what it is, is anti-woman snark.

      • Well, I think it is a bit of both. It’s obviously not a full-throated support of gay marriage. But it is at least an articulation of the possibility of non-traditional relationships, even within the broader sexism of the time.

  • Joe_JP

    This is appreciated & to the degree amicus briefs are of any use, I think one focused on this subject would be a good idea. There is one on the overall complex history of marriage in this country, e.g., but the long history of same sex marriage (especially de facto) needs to get more attention. See also: “A History of Same Sex Marriage” by William N. Eskridge Jr.

  • tsam

    Reasonable Moderate Sam Alito and other theocrats claim that same-sex marriage is illegitimate because it is a brand new perversion of a perfect and long-lasting institution.

    Yes–like Jim Crow and slavery, and other assorted perfect and reasonable long-lasting institutions. Sure, bro.

  • rea

    James Buchanan (future President of the US) and William R. King (Vice President for Franklin Pierce) had a very marriage-like relationship, sharing living quarters for more than a decade, and much remarked upon at the time (Andrew Jackson called them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”).

    This would be a bit more heart-warming if they were not both pretty evil (pro-slavery) guys.

  • JL

    I’m curious, without more context for the situation, whether that NYT article was really about two women at all, or whether it was about a woman and someone we would now understand to be a trans man (or a genderfluid or masculine-leaning nonbinary person) but that language didn’t exist at the time. Like man/man and woman/woman relationships and their recognition, transness also goes back well past the mid-20th-century.

    • It’s impossible to know, although she does explore transgender to the extent that she can in the article.

      • Origami Isopod

        It’s possible that reading their correspondence, which I understand is reproduced in the book, would shed light on this.

  • DrDick

    berdaches among southwestern indigenous peoples

    Just a small correction here. The word “berdache” is not generally used any more, as it derives from the French word for male prostitute and is regarded as insulting. Many Native activists prefer the term “Two-Spirit” and “transgender” is also commonly used by anthropologists (including me).

    • I don’t know–all I can say is that I have heard Native American scholars use the term and that the author of the article uses the term. But the details of all that is not really my specialty.

  • One thing that seriously annoys me about the argument that same-sex marriage “redefines” marriage is, as you say, the implicit assumption that marriage has always only been one thing. The truth is that we have been redefining marriage forever, in ways that, for the most part, the people now crowing about overturning a sacred institution probably think are a good thing.

    Anti-bigamy laws redefine marriage from a contract entered into by one man and one or more women to one with only two partners.

    Age of consent and marriage laws redefine marriage as a contract that can only be entered into by adults.

    The married woman’s property act and other laws like it redefined marriage from a contract that dissolved the female partner’s legal entity upon entering into it to one in which both partners preserved their property rights and standing before courts.

    No fault divorce laws redefined marriage from a contract that can only be dissolved upon proof of infidelity to one that can be broken by either party for whatever reason.

    Marital rape laws redefined marriage from a contract that gives a man absolute rights over his wife’s body to one in which she maintains her bodily autonomy.

    We’ve been redefining marriage for more than a century. Legalizing same-sex marriage is just one more step on the path to making it a more equitable and thus happier institution.

    • Joe_JP

      This. “Traditional” marriage being defined as monogamous different sex marriages, full stop, is such b.s.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I’ve always been in support of gay marriage, but I do think re-defining marriage to include LGBT people is a vastly more dramatic re-definition (and expansion) of the franchise than all of these other things. Its a bold public policy move and it was favored by LGBT activists over more incremental moves like ENDA laws precisely because it was bold. I don’t think poo-pooing the revolutionary nature of it adequately credits the history, or the activists’ vision.

      The goal, after all, in choosing to focus finite resources on gay marriage rather than on non-discrimination laws was to take a large—-if first—-step toward ending hetero-normativity; to move society from mere acceptance of LGBT to approval of LGBT. Marriage legitimacy does that in a way that simple non-discrimination laws cannot. Given the discrimination laws now percolating among state capitols we’ll soon know if it was the right choice. But my money is that it was, notwithstanding Mike Pence and his friends.

      • Joe_JP

        Changing the status of 1/2 of the vast majority of the marriages — ending coverture etc. of women — is not “a vastly more dramatic re-definition (and expansion)” than (once all the changes in easy divorce laws, married women property rights and basically the general approval of sex for non-procreative reasons even out of marriage took place) same sex couples joining in the existing established institutional restraints of marriage?

        It’s not a trivial move, but the fundamental change of marriage for women was not either. And, it overhauled the apple cart much more and for a great number of people than same sex marriage will. Anyway, a brief where history is used to promote discrimination:


      • witlesschum

        The idea that society should accept LGBT people as no different from anyone else was a dramatic change, but I don’t see how that means going from “two adults, one of each gender” to “two adults” was a dramatic change.

        Once we turned marriage into a civil and legal institution covered by equal protection laws, I think that made it explicitly into a whoever qualifies can qualify institution, compared to a religious idea of marriage where you have to meet whatever Pastor so and so says you have to so you can be considered married. There might be distance between a traditional fundamentalist Protestant marriage sealed before god and the whole congregation and a gay couple, it’s really only slightly further than, say, a pair of elderly atheist asexuals who stood before the justice of the peace and are not in a romantic relationship, but wanted the legal benefits and happen to be male and female. Under the law, the fundies and the aces were exactly the same, even though in actuality they were quite different.

        I think the fact that marriage was already quite variable means you were only stretching a bit to fit some more people in.

      • JL

        Its a bold public policy move and it was favored by LGBT activists over more incremental moves like ENDA laws precisely because it was bold.

        Where do you get this from? As far as I know, the early pushes for same-sex marriage were inspired by Loving vs Virginia, and was long pursued by groups like Lambda Legal as one of many issues, and happened to get traction. Evan Wolfson’s certainly pretty obsessed with same-sex marriage, and was a crucial figure, but it always seemed to me like he was more interested in it because of the symbolic importance of being able to get married than because it was bold.

        Also, the decision to focus so many resources on marriage was and is deeply controversial among LGBTQ activists.

        • Woodrowfan

          one of my students is from the Virginia county (Caroline) where the Lovings came from. He argued in a term paper that inter-racial relationships in the area were common (black-white-Native American) but that the local sheriff was under pressure from Richmond to enforce the anti-miscegenation laws.

      • MAJeff

        Its a bold public policy move and it was favored by LGBT activists over more incremental moves like ENDA laws precisely because it was bold.

        This is so divorced from the reality of the movement, it’s not even funny.

        In 1993, when the Hawaii case was initiated, there wasn’t a single national organization willing to take it on. Every single one of the agitated against the case because they saw the odds as being too great. When the first victory at the state Supreme Court took place, there was a shift in perception, that it may be possible. However, activists didn’t pursue this strategy because it was bold. They avoided the strategy for quite some time because they were convinced they’d lose.

        Shit, take a look at the Prop 8 legal case. There wasn’t a single national organization willing to take that lawsuit. It had to be a new organization that took it, despite the other organizations saying, “No! It’s not the right time! We’ll lose.”

        The agitation on this issue wasn’t due to it being “bold” or any such whatever, it was because grassroots folks recognized their relationships were vulnerable and pressured/forced the organized movement to get more involved.

        • PhoenixRising

          But you’re both right–he didn’t say “Gay Inc” favored marriage equality as a lead issue, but that LGBT activists did–and that’s true.

          I differ on the extent to which we chose legalizing our families, vs the issue choosing us via a series of increasingly loony and vicious attacks on our second-best forms of recognition throughout the ’90s…but that’s an interesting debate that doesn’t quite fit in this thread.

  • Steve LaBonne

    Can’t you people understand the simplest things? Redneck meth-heads on their 18th marriage (to a cousin, like all the previous ones) uphold the sacred, eternal institution of marriage. Same-sex couples who have been devoted to one another for decades are ruining that institution for the rednecks. What could be more obvious?

  • Wow. “It’s even less the business of society because they can’t have kids.” That’s a new argument to my ears. Not one that would fly for long these days, but I bet there’s a way it could be formulated.

  • SgtGymBunny

    There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men. The women who regard men as dull, tiresome creatures, incapable of understanding women, would find sympathy and pleasure in the society of female husbands.

    Speaking from experience, I have long since lamented what, to me, is clearly an unjustifiable, unfortunate and unfair attraction to the male kind of our species. ;-)

    • ThrottleJockey

      You’ve just met the wrong guys! ;-)

      Total tangent, Sarge, but from some previous posting of yours I thought you were a police officer, but from your posts earlier this week I apparently had the wrong impression. Does the “Sgt” nym reflect military service, or is it more random?

      • SgtGymBunny

        The wrong guys outnumber the right guys! (Or at least they’re more aggressive in presenting themselves to my attention.)

        I was a military brat, but it’s pretty much kinda/sorta random but not really. More to do with the super bad-ass disposition I have when in the gym and my athletic build. People either assume I’m military or a personal trainer/boot camp instructor or something.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Sorry about your experience. There are a lot of jerks offs out there. It being the weekend, I hope a good one presents themselves to you.

          Your story about the nym is funny. I get that whole “are you in the military thing?” thing too. Had some stranger in a supermarket walk up to me on Veteran’s Day and say, “Thank you for your service.” Other than being fond of cargo pants I don’t really see why they think that, but whatevs. Have a good weekend.

  • alex284

    I’m wondering how Cleves defines “marriage” if she goes so far to include as marriage non-contractual, not life-long, and non-monogamous relationships that didn’t necessarily confer status to its participants and didn’t set up rules about property ownership and sex.

    Her argument in the podcast is that lots of different social realities have been included by historians as marriages even if they weren’t legal marriages, but my response is that a) her examples were of people who self-identified as married (Andrew Jackson and his wife, married slaves) and b) the historians she’s probably referring to are historians from 20th and 21st century post-industrial economies who have little ability to understand what it means to have a long-lasting, conjugal relationship that is neither marriage nor something leading to marriage. Moreover, she’s relying on colonizers’ accounts, who may have themselves been unable to think outside the boundaries of married/unmarried and accurately describe the relationships they saw.

    A few of the examples of marriage were interesting, like the one about the women who legally married because one pretended to be a man, and I can see the point of gathering these examples together to show that same-sex marriage indeed existed in the past.

    But it also seems like she’s describing any same-sex relationship as “marriage”, which makes me wonder about the point of this exercise. Noting that people were gay in the past is nothing new (gay people won’t shut up about ancient Greece, Michaelangelo, Jonathan and David, Two Spirit people, etc, even if they don’t understand them). Noting that people in same-sex conjugal relationships considered each other family is nothing new either. Cleves’s contribution is about the word marriage itself, but broadening the definition as much as she does makes the exercise a little too easy.

    And of course maybe she addresses this all better in the article but it’s behind a paywall even though Cleves likely received no compensation from the journal for her work. Boo academic publishing.

    • Joe_JP

      The meaning of “marriage” in various cultures is broad — “non-monogamous” is clearly not required given polygamy.

      The article does not seem to try to treat every same sex couple as “married.” “Under common law, mutual consent, co-residence, and a community reputation as spouses were enough to prove a legal marriage even in the absence of a marriage license or the authorization of an officiant.”

      So, she looks at same sex unions with those things, even if it doesn’t have “legal” status though some did such as the “two spirit” people having some sort of status in Native American legal traditions. Her argument is not totally new either.

      The publication allows her work to get a wider audience and provides a vetting mechanism while the paywall provides a small means to cover the costs of publishing. Free articles for all might not work.

  • c u n d gulag

    Proving yet again, no matter what today’s uber-Christians find a heresy and an abomination against God and man, that there’s really nothing new at all under the sun.

    I hate to tell them, but homosexuality was practiced, and largely accepted around the world, even before the 6,000 year-old time-frame within which they think this Universe and this world, were created by their God.

  • bekabot

    There are many women who, if they had the opportunity, would select other women as husbands rather than marry men. The women who regard men as dull, tiresome creatures, incapable of understanding women, would find sympathy and pleasure in the society of female husbands.

    I think the worry is (in certain sectors which shall remain nameless) that too many women, given the opportunity, would do this, thus depriving worthy men of their chance of reproducing and of being certified as straight.

    (This is paired with the kindred worry that no man in his right mind would choose to settle down with a steadily aging nagger and a passel of whiny brats when he could just move in with one of his buddies and get much more of what he’s looking for that way — which is why, of course, no man must ever be given such an option.)

    Such a marriage concerns the general public less than the normal sort of marriage, since it does not involve the promise and potency of children.

    Yes, and that’s defined as a problem these days — not a feature but a bug. We’re supposed to be able to outbreed the Umma and/or the Chinese, depending on who you’re talking to. How’re we going to do that if we can’t have kids?

  • Barry Freed

    What a fantastic podcast series. I can’t wait to give this a listen. And then on to the ones on Sherman’s March, Lynching, the Vietnam war, etc.

    • Joe_JP

      Let’s not forget “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States.”

  • pseudalicious

    What I like about this is that it not only undercuts homophobic arguments from the right, but also more-radical-than-thou arguments from the far left. There’s this idea that the marriage equality movement forced all of us queer folks to “abandon” our “heritage” of radical! relationship! configurations! Conveniently ignoring all the same-sex couples in history that quietly formed vanilla, “homonormative”* pair-bonds and wanted to be left the fuck alone. This also puts the lie to the far-left claim that only rich, white gay dudes have an interest in legal same-sex marriage.

    *that word can die now, kthx

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