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.