Monday, March 28, 2005

A Small History of Same-Sex Marriage-like Unions in the U.S.

I wrote this piece for the Freedom Press, Nashville's weekly LGBT newspaper. It's in this week's issue. A modified version will go out to all the state newspapers; the usual pattern is for articles like this to be picked up by city papers only, but there's always the hope.

For those who haven't followed the antigay agenda promoted by Tennesssee lawmakers, I'm prefacing the Op-ed with a bit of background.


Tennessee’s anti-marriage amendment, “The Marriage Protection Act” passed the final legislative hurdle on March 17, and should be on the ballot in 2006. It passed in the Democratic-controlled House with a vote of 88-7, and in the Republican-controlled Senate in February by 29-3.

Shortly after returning to Nashville for the legislative session, lawmakers filed as many as twelve antigay bills. There was the antigay marriage amendment, the antigay adoption bill, the antigay foster parenting bill and the antigay civil unions and domestic partnerships bill. You could say Tennessee lawmakers are obsessed.

At no time did our Democratic Governor speak out against the bigoted legislation. It’s generally known that Governor Bredesen has some pretty inclusive views, as well as some gay friends who have adopted children. Some of our Democratic legislators are also known to be not as bigoted as their votes suggest, but standing on principle is something Tennessee Democrats are not known for.

There are a few exceptions. State Rep. Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis) voted against the bigoted bill and made her views very clear: “I tried to spend my life to teach my children to always stand up against bigotry and intolerance,” Marrero said. “And to write bigotry and intolerance into the constitution of the state of Tennessee I find to be a very unfortunate thing.”

You can see how the others voted here.

The ACLU has promised to sue the state before the amendment appears on the ballot.

A Small History of Same-Sex
Marriage-like Unions in the U.S.

As expected, Tennessee Republicans and Democrats joined forces to pass the marriage amendment. The discriminating constitutional amendment will be on the ballot in 2006. To date, all antigay marriage ballot initiatives, so fervently endorsed by state legislators, have succeeded at the polls.

According to Rep. Bill Dunn, who never met an antigay bill he didn’t embrace, "The purpose of this amendment is to keep this definition of marriage what it's been for thousands of years.” Dunn also likes to cite biblical passages about men cleaving only to wives.

Despite a long history of legislative tinkering with the legal definition of marriage, lawmakers have a tradition of denying that marriage is a political construction that has seen many variations. Legislators like Dunn insist that the rules surrounding marriage have come down from God. Yet over the last few hundred years, lawmakers have changed the definitions of marriage in countess ways.

These include: denying blacks the right to marry and then permitting them to marry, allowing married women the right to own property, forbidding and then permitting married couples the right to use contraception, lifting the prohibitions on divorce and interracial marriage, and more recently, making wives the legal equals of husbands.

In every instance, legislators could be heard protesting that the changed rules were an “abomination under God” and a “perversion of nature” which would lead to the “destruction of marriage” and “the end of civilization.” Or, as Dunn puts it, “If you destroy the definition of marriage, then it would have an adverse effect on society."

Yet it is the reality of a changing society that demands changes in the laws. In each of the above examples, lawmakers were forced to change the legal definitions of marriage in order to accommodate changes that had already occurred in society. Somehow, society has survived.

One would not expect Tennessee lawmakers like Dunn to know it, but marriage-like unions between same-sex couples are a common fact of life. And, as scholars such as William Eskridge have demonstrated, they have occurred across cultures throughout all of human history.

In an article on the topic of “lesbian love”, written in the 19th century, a U.S. physician reported that Lucy Ann Slater wore men’s clothes, lived in the wilderness, and supported her same-sex partner by hunting. According to the physician, the “wife” referred to Lucy Ann Slater as her husband. Soon, other lesbian couples in-hiding were noticed.

During the same period, Mary Anderson, a politician much like Dunn, managed to pass as a man for more than thirty years. By doing so, she was able to support both herself and her wife, in style. In those days, of course, women were rarely permitted to support even themselves.

In the early 20th century, lesbian couples held large elaborate wedding ceremonies in gay subcultures in Harlem and other U.S. cities. Some obtained real marriage licenses by “masculinizing” a first name or by sending a male to the marriage bureau. A number of these marriages were on record in the New York City Marriage Bureau.

By 1953, the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization, was debating the topic of same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples continued to hold elaborate wedding ceremonies, make vows of love, and exchange rings, secretly.

In 1979, Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson declared their undying love, made vows of lifelong devotion, and exchanged rings, all in secret. When a car accident left Sharon paralyzed and unable to speak, Karen was forced to ‘come out’ in order to honor her vow.

Sharon’s conservative parents were aghast and made every effort to persuade Karen to go away. After the court awarded guardianship to Sharon’s father, he moved his daughter to a nursing home some 300 miles away from Karen and barred her from visiting Sharon.

Over the next nine years, Karen would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court battles fighting for the right to honor her vow and care for the woman she loved.

Because of Karen’s persistence, Sharon was eventually moved from a nursing home to a rehabilitation facility where she improved dramatically. In the final court battle, 16 medical witnesses testified that Sharon was competent to choose her own guardian, and that she chose Karen.

Some nine years after the accident, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the women were “a family of affinity, which ought to be accorded respect.” Finally, Sharon was permitted to go home.

When Tennessee lawmakers voted to put a ban on same-sex marriage in our state constitution, they expressed a profound disrespect for the vows made by committed couples such as Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski.

Same-sex couples have a long history of marriage-like unions. The societal change that is going to finally force lawmakers to modify the marriage rules, yet again, is that couples such as Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski are no longer hiding.



  1. Do you know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of the same struggles that blacks had back in the day. Hetero or homosexual, we need to keep fighting for equality for everyone. I feel that we will come around as a country...but slowly, just like we are with the racism issue and interracial marriages. The fact remains: two people who love eachother should not be denied the right of a legal union regardless of race, sex, creed, religion, etc..

  2. Anonymous9:08 AM

    Big difference! You can't choose your race. But you can choose who's ass you stick your dick in!

  3. brightblue3:12 PM

    Gee thanks for the insight "anonymous", but you still can't choose the gender for which you have a natural affinity. Who you feel attraction, connection, and the ability to fall in love with is not a choice. On the other hand, religion is totally a choice, right? By your logic is religious discrimination ok, since you could choose belong to the religion deemed acceptible? Why don't you post again when you get out of middle school.

  4. These two comments pretty well sum up the argument. One side argues for equal rights, the other side can't get his mind off sex.

    It's that male chromosone, the one that thinks below the waist and above the knees. While there have always been men who think with something above the waist, they seem to be a minority group much like women.

    Polls consistently find that the majority of homophobia is found among old white middle-class men, the same group that controls the media, the gov. the church, the world.

    Of course, your average privileged white heterosexual man doesn't want to join women as objectified sexual prey. Who would? But on the plus side, if ever there was a group in desperate need of a little humility, it's the leaders of the media, the gov., the church, the world and the homophobia craze.

  5. Anonymous7:18 PM

    But we have to control our urges to steal from others, our urges to sometimes think of killing others...what is wrong with controling our sexual urges too? If we have to contol ouselves in other ways, wouldn't it be bigoted not to control them all?

  6. brightblue4:37 AM

    Again brilliant, if you are the same anonymous. Do you really think two adults of the same sex deciding to be together is the equivalent of stealing, or murder. If you do, you need to re-examine the way you look at the world (a clue for ya, those other urges involve hurting someone or violating someone's rights). Yes, gays can certainly choose to be celibate, and some do so, but there is no reason we should have too. For god's sake, would you feel it necessary to abstain from sex with your hetero partner because some people wouldn't like it? I bet not, and you would probably tell anyone who tried to impose that on you to fuck off. The use of "bigoted" in your last sentence is nonsensical to the point of being laughable. I guess we are "bigoted" against rape and murder urges, but not those loving, intimate, and sharing urges, go figure.

  7. Anonymous3:24 PM

    So if it's an urge, we should just go with it, eh?

  8. brightblue8:05 PM

    No "anon" I guess you are right and all urges are by nature evil, including the urge to help a drowning stranger, or the urge to urinate. No obviously some urges violate or harm others if acted upon, some are helpful by nature, and some are completely neutral. I would think you are an idiot, but realize you are intentionally avoiding actually addressing the subject in any intelligent or meaningful way. That being the case you get your wish and further conversation with you is ended.

  9. Anonymous5:58 AM

    Thanks for dancing around the issue! Way to take a stand!

  10. brighblue3:54 PM

    Ok "anony" who was dancing? You seem to be the one who drops unsubstantial one liners while I make arguable points that you choose not to address. Your focus on "urges" is ridiculous. 1.) Being gay involve more than simply have "urges" to have sex with those of the same sex. As I said before it is also an orientation of affection. You see it may shock you but gay people also feel affection, have crushes, and fall in love with those of the same sex, just as str8s do with regards to the opposite sex. It is not all about sex. 2.)You have failed to offer any reason the "urge" for two consenting adults of the same sex to make love is wrong, or should be surpressed. If you would like to actually do so, instead of assuming it should be, I may be able to address your point. But see, you need to make a point if you want someone to speak to it.
    Now I even numbered my points for you to more easily understand. I have taken a stand, and would debate you if you had any interest in debate. Of course I can figure that your real intent is likely to goad me and others with bigoted smarmy comments. If you suprise me by actually posting some kind of real response to what I have said in this thread, I will respond in kind. Otherwise, since I have taken a "stand" and failed to "dance" the conversation is over.

  11. Ah, very well said brightblue. Thank you. There are a lot more people listening to your words of reason than this particular misguided individual.

    Many of my friends won't converse on any level with the right wingers. But look where preaching to the choir has gotten us.

  12. Anonymous4:35 PM

    Well, when people base their entire personality around their lifestyle, one would figure that it takes up a great deal of their time.

  13. brightblue5:57 PM

    Thanks egalia, I appreciate your comments. I think it is important to engage anyone who disagrees with you in meaningful discussion, as long as they are willing to actually have a dialogue. On the other hand, if they won't do so it is time to ignore them, unless you feel like a sniping contest. Conversation and debate are truly useful and productive tools for changing minds, and understanding one's own beliefs better.