Marriage Ceremonies and Weddings

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In September 2002, the New York Times began including same-sex commitment ceremonies in its Sunday wedding announcements section. While this change in policy reflects a significant social shift and may reveal an underlying increase in same-sex weddings, same-sex marriage is not a new phenomenon. Historian John Boswell provides evidence of same-sex unions in ancient Greece. Marriage between men, Boswell argues, was sanctioned in early Rome, and the Emperor Nero is reported to have married a man in a public ceremony. However, by the fourth century, same-sex sexual relationships were less accepted, and the Romans passed laws prohibiting same-sex marriage and homosexual activity.

Prior to the nineteenth century in the Western World, marriage often functioned as a primarily economic arrangement that had little to do with love. However, increasing industrialization and urbanization reduced the economic necessity of the institution, and marriage began its transformation into a relationship based on love. These and other social changes provided more opportunities for same-sex sexual relationships and opened the door to modern same-sex marriage.

Pre-Stonewall Marriage

In the Americas, evidence suggests that same-sex marriages existed among many Native American tribes. Numerous Native American societies accepted and even celebrated individuals who assumed a third gender, that of the berdache or two-spirit person. According to anthropologist Will Roscoe, at least 155 North American tribes included men who dressed as women, fulfilled female roles, and often had sex with men. A third of these tribes also had female berdaches, who dressed as men, hunted, fought in wars, and even married other women. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, a female member of the Crow tribe, Woman Chief, led men into battle and was known for her brave deeds. She eventually had four wives.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other same-sex couples occasionally married or lived in socially recognized marital relationships. Many female couples of the nineteenth century lived together in what were known at the time as Boston marriages. Although the women involved in these relationships did not necessarily hold a marriage ceremony, they stayed together in long-term relationships that were marital unions in virtually all respects. Jonathan Katz provides evidence of a number of women who passed as men and married other women. Women were motivated to do so partially in an effort to gain greater financial independence. For example, in the late nineteenth century, one woman took the name Murray Hall, settled in New York City, and opened an employment service. She married twice and had a reputation for drinking, playing cards, and being sweet on women. One especially famous case is that of jazz musician Billy Tipton (born Dorothy), who married Kathleen Flaherty in the late 1950s. Together they raised several adopted children.

In New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, some same-sex couples had public wedding ceremonies and viewed

their relationships as marriages. Lillian Faderman describes elaborate weddings of femme/butch couples in Harlem. The couples sometimes secured real marriage licenses by masculinizing one partner's first name or by having a male friend apply for the license. George Chauncey describes how long-term relationships or marriages between older and younger working-class men were common, especially among the hoboes who frequented the streets of New York City in the 1920s. Some gay male couples referred to each other as husband and wife because their relationships so closely mirrored a heterosexual marriage.

Post-Stonewall Marriage

Same-sex weddings and interest in legal marriage have become more prevalent since the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the emergence of the modern LGBT movement. Same-sex marriage was a concern of the post-Stonewall movement from its inception. In the 1970s, three same-sex couples filed for marriage licenses. However, the topic

was controversial in the 1970s, with many lesbian and gay liberation activists agreeing with the critique of traditional marriage advanced by the women's movement. Marriage was seen by some as an institution promoting monogamy and domesticity and ultimately reinforcing male dominance and heterosexual privilege. Some argued that gays and lesbians would not gain equality until marriage was abolished altogether.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, discussions of legalizing same-sex marriage all but disappeared from queer politics. Gretchen Stiers suggests that this may be due to the influence of antimarriage arguments in the gay liberation and women's movements, or because other issues took center stage as gays and lesbians increasingly faced attacks from the right, such as Anita Bryant's antigay campaign.

The issue again returned to center stage in the LGBT rights movement on October 10, 1987, when over one thousand same-sex couples participated in a same-sex wedding ceremony in front of the Internal Revenue Service building on the day before the National March on Washington. The April 24, 1993, March on Washington also included a same-sex union ceremony, with two thousand couples sharing nuptial vows. Vermont became the first state to extend many of the legal, social, and economic benefits of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples in 2000, when the state legislature created a new legal category of "civil unions." However, the benefits the law provides include only those offered by the state and exclude the thousand-plus federal benefits available to married heterosexual couples. Reaction to the Vermont initiative and pro-gay marriage court rulings in Hawaii was largely negative, with thirty-eight states and the federal government passing laws and amendments to state constitutions explicitly prohibiting same-sex marriage under "Defense of Marriage" acts by early 2003. Following the landmark Supreme Court decision (Lawrence v. Texas) striking down anti-sodomy laws in June 2003, conservative members of the U.S. Congress, including the senate majority leader, discussed amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage has faced less resistance in Canada and European nations such as the Netherlands and Belgium, which recently became the first countries to legalize fully equitable same-sex marriage. A 2003 decision by the Ontario appeals court has paved the way for fully legal same-sex marriage throughout Canada. The level of controversy in the United States suggests that it is likely to take many years for the U.S. to follow the lead of Canada, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

"If the club won't allow us as members, why would we want to join?"

Given the fact that same-sex marriages in the United States generally carry no legal force, why have growing numbers of couples decided to hold ceremonies? Samesex couples wish to marry for both personal and political reasons. On a personal level, motivations are often comparable to the reasons heterosexual couples marry. Couples may wish to demonstrate their commitment to the relationship and love for one another, and many may see their union as a spiritual or religious one. Holding a marriage ceremony is also a rite of passage that can signify entrance into adulthood. In contrast to heterosexuals, same-sex couples are not generally subjected to external pressures to enter their unions and are more likely to encounter familial and social resistance. In such a climate, celebrating a wedding with friends and/or family can be a particularly powerful signifier of support for the relationship.

Unlike most heterosexual couples, same-sex couples may also have political motivations for holding a ceremony. Just as being out to friends, family, and coworkers can be a powerful political statement, seeking public affirmation of a same-sex relationship is also a way to raise awareness and create dialogue about the discriminatory nature of the marital institution. As having children becomes more prevalent among same-sex couples, they are interested in the protections and legal rights afforded to married couples, such as adoption and health insurance. The AIDS crisis also has fostered increased recognition among same-sex couples of the need for the medical rights denied them by the state, including health insurance and hospital visitation rights. Thus, increasing outrage and politicization over the discriminatory nature of state-sanctioned heterosexual marriage may underlie some couples' decisions to have a wedding.

Stiers and Ellen Lewin argue that same-sex weddings are simultaneously acts of resistance and accommodation. They are acts of accommodation because they reflect an acceptance of the institution of marriage and a desire to share in its benefits. At the same time, however, they are acts of resistance in that they challenge straight and male dominance. Nan Hunter argues that same-sex marriage challenges the power hierarchy in heterosexual relationships. Through decisions over the years, federal courts have established that marriage is an authority/dependence relationship based on biological male and female differences. When a couple of the same sex marries, this undermines the gendered hierarchy of marriage.

How Modern Couples Tie the Knot

Stiers suggests that the accommodation-resistance dynamic inherent in same-sex marriage is also visible in the content of same-sex wedding ceremonies. There is great variation in the content of the wedding ceremonies chosen by same-sex couples. Because same-sex weddings challenge the gender dichotomy of marriage, they exist partially outside of the institution, and participants are thus less bound by social expectations. Same-sex couples are freer to pick and choose how to express their love and commitment. Thus, ceremonies often include some combination of traditional aspects similar to those in heterosexual weddings as well as unique elements that reflect queer culture or personal beliefs and values. For example, while many same-sex wedding ceremonies include religious practices, such as vows, prayers, and hymns, same-sex couples may give these elements a new twist by altering the gender pronouns or otherwise personalizing them. A lesbian Jewish couple might both break the ceremonial glass, whereas in cross-sex weddings this task is traditionally the man's. Some couples draw from feminist or pagan spirituality to challenge the institutions of both marriage and patriarchy while also expressing personal religious beliefs.

Other, more cultural, facets of heterosexual ceremonies are also found in same-sex celebrations, such as wedding cakes, special dances, festive attire, showers, and gift registries. However, same-sex couples might incorporate unique aspects into their cultural repertoire by having a simple same-sex cake topper or, more elaborately, an all-gay wedding party with a lesbian best man dressed in a tuxedo and a gay maid of honor wearing the finest satin and tulle gown. Other cultural variations include actively supporting gay-owned or gay-friendly businesses or "registering" for guests to give donations to a favorite charity (for example, one advocating equal marriage rights for same-sex couples). Queer culture can also be reflected by involving drag queens in aspects of the ceremony or by holding the reception at a favorite gay nightclub.

Regardless of how modern same-sex weddings are celebrated, their increased prevalence and visibility signify varying degrees of progress on cultural, religious, and familial fronts. At the same time, the ceremonies, with their lack of legal recognition, vividly serve as reminders for how far same-sex couples still must travel to gain political, economic, and legal equality with heterosexuals.


Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hunter, Nan D. "Marriage, Law and Gender: A Feminist Inquiry." In Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. Edited by Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Lewin, Ellen. Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Sherman, Suzanne, ed. Lesbian and Gay Marriage: Private Commitments, Public Ceremonies. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Stiers, Gretchen A. From This Day Forward: Commitment, Marriage and Family in Lesbian and Gay Relationships. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Nella Van Dyke and

Irenee R. Beattie

see alsobentley, gladys; family issues; family law and policy; hall, murray; jews and judaism; jorgensen, christine; marches on washington; mitchell, alice; romantic friendship and boston marriage; woman chief.

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Marriage Ceremonies and Weddings

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