Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Real History of Same-Sex Marriage

Michel de Montaigne
A possible heterosexual who saw
where men married men
In Florida today, Matt Staver of the Liberty Counsel, an anti-gay law firm (they describe themselves as defending “Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family”) testified at hearing in Miami today concerning whether the Florida ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Staver appeared as an amicus, and if the courtroom had been struck by lighting each time he uttered an untruth, the building would be a smoking ruin. For example, he brought up the study done by Mark Regnerus, the University of Texas sociology professor, and made sweeping claims based on it. I actually think Staver’s description of Regnerus’s conclusions went far beyond anything that Regnerus actually claimed.

Staver also brought up Stanley Kurtz’s study of marriage rates in Scandinavia. I haven’t heard that one in a long, long time. Kurtz does have a Ph.D. in social anthropology, but he’s not an academic. His claim that same-sex marriage caused a drop-off in the rates of marriage in the Scandinavian countries was much loved by opponents of same-sex marriage. It was also debunked as soon as someone looked at the marriage rates the decade before same-sex marriage, when marriage was declining even more sharply.

But Staver’s biggest error was his claim that same-sex marriage didn’t exist in history before it was legalized in the Netherlands in 2001. Sorry, Mr. Staver, but your history is off.

John Boswell in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe argued that marriages were celebrated between same-sex couples in medieval Europe. His conclusions engendered much controversy, and Boswell died not long after it was published. The best criticisms found fault of his interpretation of certain words in medieval Greek. I would guess that most of the people who criticized Boswell’s conclusions lacked any ability whatsoever to read medieval Greek (a position I am in as well). Boswell also cites the examples given of Roman Emperors who married men, Nero and Elagabalus. Wikipedia also notes that the Roman Empire outlawed same-sex marriage in 342 CE, and the law had a penalty of execution for those who where married to members of their own sex. Nobody passes laws in the abstract, so we can assume that there were married same-sex couples in the Roman Empire.

If we toss Boswell out as “possible, but not definitive,” there’s still a lot to choose from. I suspect that James Davison, a classics professor at the University of Warwick might agree with Boswell. Davison specializes in the ancient greeks, but his book The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World has a lengthy passage on cases in which same-sex couples were described using the same words as opposite-sex couples, noting that “many classicists remain wary of seeing anything sexual in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.”
More generally, Xonophon talks of Boeotian men associating “once they have been yoked together” (syzygenetes), a normal word for “marriage” and Sappho refers to other women as “yoke-mates.”
Later he writes that
Thucydides himself seems to provide evidence for an Athenian same-sex association when he says not merely that Areistogiton “was Harmodius’s eratēs*” but also “took him to spouse.”
The problem with the with Greek and Roman antiquity and the early medieval period that Boswell studied was that so much of this hinges on single, obscure words. But there’s more.

Carlos Callón, a professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, found a document in the Historical Archives in Madrid of a marriage between Pedro Díaz and Muño Vandilaz in Rairiz de Veiga on April 16, 1061. Callón wrote about this discovery in Amigos e sodomitas. A configuración da homosexualidade na Idade Media. Spain’s first same-sex marriage came long before 2005.

Need another? Here’s an account from Michel de Montaigne:
On my return from St. Peter’s, I met a man who mentioned two curious things; that the Portuguese paid their homage in Passion-week; an that on this particular day the pope’s visitation was to the church of St. John Porta Latina, in which church a party of Portuguese, some years ago, entered into a very extraordinary society. They married one another, man to man, before the alter, with the same ceremonies that we observe at our marriages; received the sacrament together; read the same marriage service, and then went to bed and lived together. The Romans remarked hereupon that, as, in the other connection of man and woman, it is marriage alone that makes the connection lawful, so these worthies had taken it into their heads that the other connection might be legitimized in like manner, by precluding it with the ceremonies of the church. Eight or nine Portuguese, belong to this respectable community, were afterwards burnt.
Not a happy ending, but it does seem that in sixteenth-century Rome, there was a priest willing to bless a same-sex couple, and give them the sacrament of marriage. The web site for San Giovanna a Porta Latina doesn’t mention Montaigne’s visit.

Staver’s history was not only irrelevant (because what does it matter if same-sex marriage only dates back to 2000?), but also also historically incorrect. I’m sure Staver wouldn’t bother to do the minimal research required to get his facts right; it were seriously impede his ability to spout that nonsense in court.
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