Google “New York Gay Marriage” and 73 million plus stories pop up, explaining, celebrating or lamenting the legalizing of gay marriage in New York. Bridal and tuxedo shops are bracing happily for an onslaught of wedding-minded gay partners. An ever-cautious President Obama praises the process of New York legislature’s democratic debate on the subject. Shocked homophobes and opponents of anti-gay marriage pray hard against it. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who confessed his disappointment and need for “a good dose of the Lord’s graced and mercy,” adds that despite his pro-(heterosexual)marriage views, he loves gays very much. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the vote “historic.”
Historic? Very much so, but not in the way that Clinton means. Gay people have always been around, and in eras when homoeroticism was viewed more matter-of-factly, as in ancient Egypt, various Greek city states, and the Roman Empire, there is evidence of same-sex unions, and perhaps marriage. What else to make of the Sifra, a third-century commentary on Leviticus often cited by the Talmud, forbidding the Israelites from copying what they believed to be Egyptian practices:
And what would they do?
A man would marry a man and a woman would marry a woman; a man would marry a woman and her daughter; a woman would be married to two men.
That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.”
In ancient Greece, some fathers consented to quasi-marital unions between their sons and men who desired them. Similarly, in China’s Fujian province in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), women ceremoniously bound themselves into intimate unions with girls, and men did the same with boys. These relationships ended years later, and the adult spouses then helped their young partners find and marry opposite-sex spouses.
By the time of the early Roman Empire, there were some references to same-sex marriages. The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius reported that the emperor Nero attempted to transform the youthful Sporus into a woman by castrating him. Then he married the maimed boy in traditional rites, and afterward treated him as his wife. (Nero had previously assumed the role of bride and took his wine steward, the freedman Pythagoras, as his husband.)
The satiric—and probably bisexual—poet and social commentator Martial described how “Bearded Callistratus married the rugged Afer in the usual form in which a virgin marries a husband. The torches shone in front, the wedding veil covered his face. … Even the dowry was declared. Are you still not satisfied, Rome? Are you waiting for him to give birth?”
In 117 ad, the satiric poet Juvenal castigated the aristocrat Gracchus for – well, read on, and see how very “historic” gay marriage, and the response to it, really is:
Gracchus gave a dowry of 400,000 sesterces to a cornet player—or perhaps he’d performed on a straight horn. Marriage documents were signed, felicitations offered, they sat down to a great banquet, and the new bride lay in her husband’s lap. … This very man who now dons flounces and a dress and a bridal veil, he bore the sacred implements swaying on their mystic thong, and he sweated beneath the shields of Mars.
Father of Rome, how came such sacrilege to your Latian shepherds? How is it, Mars, that such an itch possessed your descendants? Just look at it: a man of high birth and estate is given in marriage to a man, yet you do not shake your helmet, nor strike the earth with your spear, nor complain to your father. …
If we live long enough, [homosexual marriage] will happen, and happen openly; they will even want it reported in the city gazette.[i]
Now let’s look closer to home, where early European visitors were astonished (and repelled) by North American native versions of same-sex unions. The Crow people, for example, recognized a third gender, or berdache, understood by natives as “two spirit” people possessed of both maleness and femaleness and, in many tribes, permitted to marry partners of the same sex.
The polygamous Aleut and Cheyenne permitted male berdaches to be co-wives of a man alongside single-spirit women. Whether they married monogamously or polygamously, berdaches had to observe traditional kinship rules for marriage. “Strange country this,” observed fur trader Edwin T. Denig in 1833, “where males assume the dress and perform the duties of females, while women turn men and mate with their own sex!”[ii]
Centuries later, New York has joined the growing number of jurisdictions including Canada, where a 2005 federal law legalized same-sex marriage country-wide. New York’s brand-new law, too, is only historic in that it grants to all interested citizens the right to same-sex marriage once available only in some Native tribes, and in antiquity, to powerful males.
[i] Juvenal, quoted in Frier, “Roman Same-Sex Weddings from the Legal Perspective.”
[ii] Quoted in Roscoe, Changing One, p. 3.