Gay marriage in history

Even though this is a factual question and could be posted in General Questions, I’ll go ahead and post it here in anticipation of the discussion of the relevance of the answer.

Has the question of “gay marriage” been addressed by other cultures of the past? Has there ever been a culture that recognized same-sex marriages?

I was going to ask this question, but since you already did, I’d like to add: Has it ever been shown that gay marriage either harmed or helped any of the above societies?

Yes. Many still exist, though their implementation varies.

There are upwards of thirty African tribes in which a woman may pay bride-price for another woman. (If you’re not familiar with the bride-price custom, basically it’s the goods that a [usually] man gives to the family of his would-be wife in exchange for the right to marry her.)

Some cultures which have sex-segregated initiation rituals allow people of one sex to go through the initiation of the other. After they’ve accomplished adulthood in this way, they are treated in all ways as being of the sex that they initiated in, including right to marry. (One would suspect that someone from such a culture would not call this same-sex marriage, however.) Such couples do have children, either by adoption or by (in the case of women) having the ‘wife’ in the relationship discreetly have sex with someone else.

Some cultures additionally have a third sex, one considered neither male nor female. (Often linked to religious rituals.) In some of those a member of the third sex may marry.

I have heard rumours that some of the cultures native to North America had same-sex marriage recognised before the Europeans arrived, but I haven’t researched it myself. I believe the Inuit and related peoples have notable-to-queer-folks marriage customs, but I don’t recall particulars if I ever knew them.

For ancient cultures, I believe marriage was much more often a property thing; marriage for love was not common. However, there are notable examples of well-respected same-sex partnerings, such as the Sacred Band of Thebes. There is also a theory that the Tomb of the Two Brothers is the tomb of a gay couple (both were, I believe, married, but their funereal decoration portrays them in relation to each other in a way that is normal for a husband and wife; the Egyptians were sufficiently formulaic in their portrayals that this is stronger evidence than you might guess at first) – the “brothers”, incidentally, were a pair of Pharaoh’s hairdressers. The ancient Celts may have acknowledged bisexuality; someone I know claimed that in the Brehonic code there’s a line that goes something like, “If your spouse turns out to only be interested in same-sex partnerings, that’s legitimate grounds for divorce” (suggesting that having a same-sex partner in and of itself was not).

Well, I know in Spartan Greece it was actually a requirement for battle companions…and certainly THEY thought it was a big help. I don’t know if they used the word ‘marriage’ but they were definitely encouraged at a young age to formalized homosexual relationships with other warriors. If I remember correctly, at later age they were required to breed, but I don’t know if they formally married the women or not, or if the warrior caste was excluded from this. Its been a LONG time since I studied ancient history in college so I could have much of this garbled or wrong.

Other nations I remember having formalized homosexual relationships were several of the far eastern nations at various times. India perhaps too at different times in its past if I recall correctly.


It’s important, for this discfussion, to distinguish between cultures that tolerate or even encourage homosexual relationships and those that actually have same-sex marriage as part of their culture. Marriage in the sense of setting up housekeeping, family rearing activities, and inheritence of goods/property.

And although I’m not denying that there ever were cultures practicing same-sex marriage in that sense, I’d have to see a credible cite to be convinced-- not just take the word of someone posting to this thread.

Definitely not a male-role/female-role relationship, as John Mace and I would both be interested to see, but what about the Roman practice of adopting an adult heir? That certainly could be seen as a possible way to provide a same-sex partner with an inheritance. Was it ever explicitly used as such?

What I remember about the relationship was that while it was considered a normal part of young man’s formation, these relationships were carried out in practice clandestinely. Part of that was probably that it heightened the romantic factor. But it was considered scandalous to display the relationship in the open.

Secondly, these relationships were assumed to be a temporary arrangement between a boy and a man, not two men.

Hardly equivalent to marriage.

But this is not the sort of thing I am not asking about. So far, the examples have been of possible ways in which homosexual relationships can be tolerated in a society in which heterosexual marriage is the norm, not societies in which homosexual and heterosexual unions are treated equally.

Here’s what I found:
The Tomb of Two Brothers.

I just found this part really funny.

As Lilairen points out above, Africa is absolutely crawling with homosexual marriage. Skimming the first half or so and scattered bits of the second half of Stephen O’Murray and Will Roscoe’s book Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities turned up relatively few explicit references to what I would describe as lesbian marriage, as opposed to merely formalized and accepted lesbian relationships (which are abundant, and I put them in that category when and because they appear to lack the cultural weight of marriage, and particularly when the participants are expected to abandon their lesbian relationships when they marry men, though not every culture has this expectation), and the account is somewhat ambiguous. It concerns a Zande tradition:

The book is a confusion of people quoting other people quoting still other people, so I’m not even trying to keep close track of the attributions. Here’s Evans-Pritchard expanding on this ‘encouraged among males’ business:

That’s from a long and rather repetitive passage; the […] is where I excised a couple of paragraphs that say the same thing as the Evans-Pritchard quote with less clarity.

It’s not just Zande women who use an established friendship-ceremony as a homosexual marriage ceremony:

There are also a number of cultures in Africa that practice homosexual marriage only somewhat arguably, because the parties involved are socially male and female, often becoming so before entering the marriage rather than as a condition of entering it. (Transgenderism is so common in tribal African cultures I’m surprised anyone has time enough off from fiddling with their clothes to get anything done.)

But there are definitely cultures in which gay marriage doesn’t differ significantly from straight marriage, not even to the extent of the Zande’s expectation of eventual separation:

The length of this post is obscene, and I apologize. I was actually pretty restrained with the quoting.

Pretend, when you read this sentence, that it makes some damn sense. I edited it too many times and reread it too few.

China -
Shen Defu (1578-1642) explains how in Fujian, some male-male couples lived together in a form of same sex marriage.

There were apparently also same sex marriages in Europe during the Renaissance. John Boswell’s work is heavily debated, but men did get married to other men. Unfortunately, the authorities clamped down on the marriages as soon as they found out about it and the particpants were killed.

Antonio Tieplo, the Venetian ambassador says in 1578

These marriages were apparently performed openly in the churches by priests. I imagine that many more were performed which remain hidden in history.

Montaigne confirms Tieplo’s accounts in 1580 adding

He also adds that they burned 8 or 9 of these “heretics.”

Among the chukchi, same-sex marriages were permitted provided that one of the partners took the role of the opposite sex. Marriage of both same sex and opposite sex couples are performed by the same rituals. The husband and “wife” or wife and “husband” also take each other’s names. In male-male couples, the “wife” partner is expected to fullfill the role as a woman would. He is expected to stay home and do the cooking while the husband does the normal male things.

See “Homosexualities” By Stephen O Murrary and Homosexuality and Civilization" by Louis Crompton for more details about those.

It would take too long to go into detail about every culture that allowed same-sex marriages. But I can tell you the effect it had - absolutely nothing.

What’s more the American Anthropological Association issued a statement saying:

Here are some website that have more information.

Sorry, it looks like part of my post was eaten. Here is a link to the American Anthropological Association website. which contains the quote I mentioned above.

The full statement reads:

Very interesting. Now it seems to me to be problematic to call a marriage, between, say, two men, in which both men are biologically male but one of them is considered socially to be female, a “same-sex” marriage. So, putting that aside, I would be quite interested in hearing if, in any of these cultures past or present that have extended a sanction to same-sex unions, any of these same-sex unions were referred to with the same name, in the native language of that culture, as the more conventional kind of marriage that we are used to, ie between a man and a woman.

Does anyone know?

(I don’t know if the search function is not working or what - my newer threads are not coming up in results…)

I posted this thread recently in MPSIMS:

Same-Sex Marriage infamously existed at Egypt’s Siwa Oasis

I think creating a historical legacy of Gay Marriage is hardly the way to defend it… since I feel its more a sign of OUR times than something “normal”. The same women were treated as second class citizens and humans for most of history, with a few exceptions, wasn’t changed easily. Now women are almost treated equally.

Marriage has become a tax and legal institution more than anything else… so lets them gays marry. Even if no society ever allowed them so is no reason not to do so now.

PS I think gays are better off without marriage and divorce… :slight_smile: Its their choice though.


What’s the situation like in Brazil? Any chance gay marriage will break onto the scene any time soon?

I don’t think it is difficult to find the information on woman-woman marriages in traditional African societies in BOY-WIVES AND FEMALE HUSBANDS, since there is a chapter about that subject. Material on “boy-wives” are more scattered (east and northeast of the societies with woman-woman marriages). The marriages of boys to men were not life-long, but neither are heterosexual American marriages, with Britney Spears as the extreme instance.

I also think that our book is clear when anthropologists are quoting African “natives” and when Willl Roscoe and I are quoting anthropologists–at least clear to those who read rather than skim it.

Southeastern China (Fujien for males, Guandong for females) is an area traditionally famous (or notorious) for same-sex marriage. With very public concubinage (that is, the role had rights and responsibilities), traditional China was de facto a polygamous society.

The isolation à deux of the nuclear family and expectation of male monogamy are rare in human history. Polygamy is more common and historically, marriage has been “about” property rather than about love and expectations of intimacy rather than breeding heirs. Even within Christendom there are not “millennia of human experience” of “marriage” as unions freely chosen by a man and a woman. Marriage was NOT a sacrament in the first millennium (-plus) of Christianity, and even when it was added, it was for arranged marriages of the propertied class, not for all Christians.

I would be quite interested in hearing if, in any of these cultures past or present that have extended a sanction to same-sex unions, any of these same-sex unions were referred to with the same name, in the native language of that culture, as the more conventional kind of marriage that we are used to, ie between a man and a woman.

Does anyone know?

In the African and Balkan instances, the words for male “husbands” were used for female "husbands. There were male “wives” of the South African mines, etc. It is the African uses that led to our title BOY-WIVES AND FEMALE HUSBANDS. In China, the idiom was fraternal and sororial rather than marital (marriage bonds being less important than shared blood in traditional Chinese culture).

Indeed. However, the claims by a remarkably ethnocentric, incurious, and ill-informed president about “millennia of human experience” does require challenging (and the American Anthropological Association’s executive board to issue the following statement:

"The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association strongly opposes a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples."