Marriage is the union of individuals to form a kinship-based household in which the individuals are not typically related by blood. The union implies setting up a household in common, fidelity of the heart and body, lifetime commitment, and intimate sexual relations. In addition, the newly-forged kinship bond enacted by the marriage equals or pre-empts other kinship relationships.
Typically based upon the union of a man to a woman, and implicitly for the purpose of raising children resulting from their sexual relations, the concept of the intimate marriage bond in various cultures has been expanded into a broad range of relationships including non-procreative marriage, nonsexual marriage, same-sex marriage, multiple marriage partners, marriage to nonhumans, marriage to divine beings, and marriage to the dead.
Within the LGBTQ community, marriage has various configurations of orientation and gender, such as one woman with one woman, one man with one man, one person (of any orientation, gender, and sexual physiology) with one transperson, and one person with one intersex person. Less frequent is simultaneous marriage with more than one person. Gay folklife regarding marriage is especially rich in the areas of activism for marriage equality, identity as a couple, and ritual performance.
Kinds of Marriage
In the vast range of human cultural expression, traditional marriage has taken myriad forms, including polygamy (usually one man with more than one woman), intrakinship marriage, child-adult marriage, and child-child marriage. Some marriages are performed simply by the act of one person moving in with another person, as with the traditional marriage in the Zuni Nation.
Some of the most diverse forms of marriage are religion-based. In Hinduism, a man may be wedded to a rui-bush (a plant representing the Sun’s daughter) before remarrying a third time in order to prevent misfortune associated with a third marriage. In Nepal, Hindu girls may marry the Sun.
There is also a custom among some Hindus of people marrying dogs to ensure good fortune, a nonsexual union that does not prevent the human partner from marrying another human at a later date. In Haitian Vodou, a person may marry a lwa (Haitian god-saint). Roman Catholic nuns marry Jesus, and Roman Catholic priests marry Mother Church (the personification of the Roman Catholic population and its leadership). Muslim kings of Mataram in Java, Indonesia have been traditionally married to the saltwater spirit known as the Queen of the Sea. Marriages between the living and the dead (and the dead with the dead) have been recorded in more than one tradition, but appear to be especially notable in Chinese folklife in order to fulfill Confucian principles of respect (example: an older brother must be married before a younger brother can marry. If the older brother dies before ever marrying, a wedding ceremony is performed after he dies, thus allowing the younger brother the option of marriage without disrespecting his older brother).
Pre-Stonewall Same-Sex Marriage
Among the variations of marriage are examples of same-sex marriage or its approximation within specific cultural contexts. These examples have become important in Gay activist discourse as evidence contradicting claims that marriage is an unchanging institution that has always been between a man and a woman in every culture for all time.
One of the earliest is the ancient Egyptian couple Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (2450 BCE), two upper-class members of the pharaoh’s royal court whose intimate portraiture together on their shared tomb illustrates a profound bond surpassing that expected of brothers or friends. Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen who masculinized her image and made herself a pharaoh, gave her daughter the position as Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s Great Royal Wife for purposes of conducting sacred ritual. Among the ancient Hebrews, the story of David and Jonathan preserved in First and Second Samuel in the Bible describes two men whose souls were bound together in a love that, according to David, surpassed the love of women.
Although there is plenty of evidence for same-sex love among the ancient Greeks, it is from the ancient Romans that evidence for same-sex marriages and loving relationships between men (but not so much between women) is found, including the intimate bond between Emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous. There is also the story of two Eastern Christian soldier-saints, Sergius and Bacchus, before Christianity was legalized. These men are described as having so intimate a friendship that, after Bacchus was martyred, he appeared to Sergius and promised Sergius that his heavenly reward for fidelity to Christ would be reunion with Bacchus in the afterlife. The custom of same-sex marriage among men was apparently prevalent enough for the Code of Christian Emperor Theodosius (342 CE) to have such marriages officially banned.
In China, Fujian and Guangdong provinces in the eighteenth century had the reputation for same-sex romance and marriage between two men or two women. In Passions of the Cut Sleeve, Brett Hinsch gives accounts of pre-Stonewall same-sex marriages. A man with a male companion of similar status could establish a kinship bond that allowed for marriage to women as well. In this union, the elder was called “bond-elder brother” (Qi Xiong), and the younger “bond-younger brother” (Qi Di). The elder brother was treated as a son-in-law when he went to the home of the younger one, and the younger one’s expenses, including his expenses for taking a wife, were all taken care of by the elder. Dramatic presentations of similar same-sex romantic bonds can be found in the plays of Li Yu (1610-1680 CE), who also gives an account of the wedding ritual: a carp, cock, and duck are sacrificed. The couple exchanges exact times of birth, wipe blood from the sacrifice on each other’s mouth, and exchange vows. There is also a custom for older women to marry younger women in order for the couple to set up a household for mutual support should neither of them have husbands. The Golden Orchid Association in Guangdong was especially notable in having wedding ceremonies for women, with one designated “husband,” the other “wife,” ritual gift exchange (a common feature of heterosexual marriage), a feast for their female friends, and the option to adopt children.
Same-sex and transgender unions can be found in Africa as well. The woman-king Njinga was reported to have a harem of men who dressed as women. In Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe document woman-woman marriage (including payment of a dowry) among peoples all over Africa south of the Sahara, including the Venda, Zulu, Sotho, Phalaborwa, Tawana, Koni, Hurutshe, Narene, Pedi, Lovedu, Fon, Yoruba, Ibo, Ekiti, Bunu, Akoko, Nupe, Ijaw, Nzema,Yagba, Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Kikuyu, Nandi, Gisii, Suba, Simbiti, Kenye, Kuria, Iregi, Ngoreme, and Luo. The Zande had a tradition of having young men as wives, and paying a bride-price for them.
Among Native Americans, there are multiple instances of people whose biological sex did not match their gender, and who married people of the gender they had rejected. Woman Chief of the Crow Nation is famous for having four wives, and men who dressed as women among Pueblo peoples have been known to take other men as husbands.
In Europe, various Christian rites for uniting same-sex couples into sibling-like relationships such as Eastern Christian adelphopoiesis (Greek: “brother-making”) appeared in the Middle Ages, some of which included a commitment to a shared household. In 1578, an incident reported by Venetian ambassador Antonio Tiepolo mentions twenty-seven Spanish and Portuguese men in Rome who sought church marriages to each other. The scandal was resolved by the capture of eleven men, who were then burnt to death.
In Western Europe and the USA during the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries, the notion of two women living together without men was at times acceptable. There are instances when such women were seen as virgin spinsters with no use for men, a notion that seemed more comical than threatening to the social order. The custom of Boston marriage during the late nineteenth century was understood as a means by which women could avoid being under the hand of a male husband, and would later be interpreted by the LGBTQ community as a useful convention for women who loved each other to stay together with minimal social censure.
Two couples in particular have become iconic as pre-Stonewall examples of same-sex marriage. In each case, two women decided to leave their families, move to another land, set up a household, live together for decades, entertain upper-class people in their home, and be buried together. The Ladies of Llangollen in Wales were two Irish women who became minor celebrities for their charm, hospitality, and what was considered their eccentric behavior of incorporating men’s clothing into their wardrobes during the early nineteenth century. The second couple was Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein during the twentieth century, two Americans who lived together in France. Like the Ladies of Llangollen, they had a reputation for entertaining famous visitors and friends.
Post-Stonewall Same-Sex Marriage
Gay marriage since Stonewall has been by and large a continuation of traditions held by ethnic, religious, and national groups. One important difference, however, is the strategy of having a same-sex wedding according to traditional guidelines in order to legitimize the union, such as the marriage of two Oklahoma Cherokee women, Dawn McKinley and Cathy Reynolds, according to Cherokee tradition in 2004, or the wedding of Melka Nilsa and Wetka Polang in India according to the rites of their scheduled tribe, the Kandha. Due to exceptions in the legal codes given to certain ethnic groups in the USA and India, both marriages were legal, even though neither Oklahoma nor India recognized same-sex marriage for the general population at that time. Two couples in Toronto, Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell, and Anne and Elaine Vautour, were married in their church after announcing the banns (a Christian tradition of informing a church that members of to congregation were planning to marry so that any objections could be raised beforehand), and their marriages were instrumental in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada. A coalition of Canadian religious leaders from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Sikh communities worked together with the LGBTQ community (and the Metropolitan Community Church in which the couples were married) to legalize same-sex unions.
Due to media coverage of same-sex marriages in different states in the USA, city halls have become sites of celebration when couples arrive to obtain their marriage licenses. Such was the case when famous Lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were married, twice, in San Francisco’s city hall.
Same-sex weddings in Africa and the Middle East that were reported in Senegal (a marriage between two men), Uganda (two men), Kenya (two men), Angola (two men), Malawi (two men), Morocco (two men), Saudi Arabia (two Saudi men, also two men from Chad), Kuwait (two women and two men), and Nigeria (one woman to four women) made the news from 2005 to 2010. Media sensation from these weddings and strong Christian/Muslim opposition to Gay rights (in part funded by American Fundamentalist Christian groups in East Africa) has inspired anti-Gay sentiment in those countries as well as in Tanzania and Kenya. That same hysteria has been the excuse for the introduction of anti-Gay legislation in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Nigeria (including calls for the death penalty), and further oppression from Zimbabwe and Zambia’s anti-Gay governments as homosexuality is linked to un-African colonialist oppression, AIDS, demons, and witchcraft. But influence from South Africa, where LGBTQ people have equal rights under the law and same-sex marriage is legal, has positively affected LGBTQ rights in Namibia and Botswana.
Some countries that are tolerant towards homosexuality may not be so accepting of marriage equality. In April 2012, the Vaturisu Council of Chiefs on the island nation of Vanuatu issued a statement condemning a same-sex wedding conducted at a tourist hotel between two non-local women. The condemnation is based on an understanding of Vanuatu as a Christian nation, the same underlying reason that other, less tolerant (at least in terms of legal restrictions), Oceanian nations such as the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa refuse to legalize homosexuality at all, while others such as Palau and Nauru have pledged to become more tolerant, with marriage equality not yet on the table.
The issue in Oceania may not be so much a dislike of homosexuality as resistance to anything seen as undermining distinctly gendered roles in traditional marriage as mainstays for social stability. Several societies allow for same-sex attraction, and for effeminate men (and perhaps also masculine women) to take on the gender not typically assigned to people of their biological sex, as is the case in Kiribati and Samoa. But there is nevertheless resistance to LGBTQ identities as well as Christian-based condemnation of Gays.
Ritual Variations in Same-Sex Weddings
As with weddings in general, there is a tendency for couples to customize their ceremonies and vows in the USA and Canada. Although there is great variety among LGBTQ people in the manner in which weddings are conducted, some trends include the absence of a bride being given away, and a tendency for the couple to dress alike or in similar clothing.
It is not unusual for Jewish and Christian LGBTQ people to include references to Biblical figures such as Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and (for Christians) couple-martyrs such as Sergius and Bacchus, and Perpetua and Felicitas in the liturgies of their weddings. Works of scholars such as John Boswell (Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, in which Boswell queers the adelphopoieses liturgy as well as holy couples such as Sergius/Bacchus and Perpetua/Felicitas) have been important sources for the creation of Gay rituals and saintly icons.
The Orange, the Wine, the Second Glass
LGBTQ Jewish groups such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA, www.pja.org) have suggested ritual performance elements along traditional lines similar to that of the Exile from Israel (breaking of the glass under the chuppa or wedding canopy). These include filling a second glass of untouched wine, bringing an orange under the chuppa (extending a custom started by writer Susannah Heschel of adding an orange to the Seder plate during Passover to represent LGBTQ people), and adding an eighth bracha (Hebrew: “blessing”) to the traditional seven (by Rachel Biale, translated from the Hebrew):
Grant great joy to beloved companions
A man with his mate, a woman her lover;
With all of Israel they shall share a portion.
Blessed be those beloved ones
Who “the one my soul desires” found,
In the path of the love of David and Jonathan.
May they be blessed with Huppah and Kiddushin according to the customs of Jewish men and women, and with equal rights in the communities of Israel;
May it come speedily, in our day, and let us say “Amen.”
A second ritual of spilling wine was created by Deborah Eisenbach-Budner and her male husband to recognize heterosexism in the traditional ceremony. Feeling that they could not drink the traditional full cup of wine until LGBTQ people were given the same rights in marriage, they added their own eighth bracha and spilled some wine before drinking from the cup (translated from Hebrew, modifications on the names of the Almighty by this article’s author):
You are blessed, [HaShem] our G-d, Source of Life, who enables us to strive toward the devotion of Jonathan and David, the life-sharing of Ruth and Naomi, and the commitment of Jacob and Rachel. May the time come soon when the voices of all lovers, the music of all friendships, will rise up to be heard and celebrated in the gates of our cities. May the time come soon when we can all drink a full cup of joy. Blessed are You, Source of Love.
Countries that Recognize Marriage Equality
Aotearoa/New Zealand (2013)
England and Wales (2014)
South Africa (2006)
US States That Have Marriage Equality:
New Hampshire (2010)
New Jersey (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
New York (2011)
Rhode Island (2013)
South Carolina (2014)
West Virginia (2014)
Native American Nations That Recognize Same-Sex Marriage:
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians
Santa Ysabel Tribe
Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Vintage, 1995 (1994).
Diamant, Anita. Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley: University of California, 1990.
Murray, Stephen and Will Roscoe. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001.