New research on long history of same-sex unions in US


- Tara Sharpe

The Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear arguments on April 28 in a landmark case on the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage. One month ahead of the ruling, timely new research by UVic historian Dr. Rachel Hope Cleves is affording critical insights and historical context for the cresting debate on civil rights and full equality of marriage in the US, where same-sex marriage is already legal in nearly 40 states.

Published in the March 2015 edition of The Journal of American History, Cleves’ article “‘What, Another Female Husband?’: The Prehistory of Same-Sex Marriage in America” explores 500 years of early same-sex unions in the US and refutes the myth about the “newness” of same-sex marriage or the notion that a precedent for such unions is only as recent as the Internet, cell phones or automobiles. “There is this huge history that needs to be told better and this research is an invitation and provocation for people to do that,” she says.

Historicizing same-sex marriage

Cleves, an associate professor in UVic’s history department and an expert on the history of sexuality in North America, particularly LGBT history and same-sex marriage from the colonial era to the present, points out that some communities overtly or tacitly recognized partners as couples.

“The argument that historically marriage was only for procreation, and exclusively with a man and a woman, is flawed." She emphasizes she is not the first scholar to counter these claims on historical grounds. Her article is new for building a synthesis from examples that have often been treated as sui generis in the past, thus providing a historical context previously absent from the conversation. “One missing piece in the mobilization of support for same-sex marriage in America was a scholarly historicization of same-sex unions.”

So Cleves provided that historical context in the 26-page article, now available online. Beginning in 2005, while conducting research for her book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014), she assembled examples from primary sources and in the article published this month, she defines these examples not as “an exhaustive survey” but as “an unabashed magpie approach to writing synthesis.”

She points out her research is not an argument for the “commonness” of same-sex unions in the past, but an illustration that same-sex marriage “has long been known in American history” and that the historical definition in America of marriage “as a public institution rather than a private bond, as it is seen today, makes these outsiders’ accounts a powerful source base to begin building a long history of the institution of same-sex marriage.”

A civil-rights issue

Full marriage equality is also “a civil rights issue,” she adds, and parallels the history of mixed-race marriages, which once contravened former laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman of the same race. As recently as 1967, an inter-racial couple sued the state of Virginia for the right to legally validate their marriage and the US Supreme Court found the state’s bans on inter-racial marriage an abrogation of the equal rights of all citizens. This can be seen to be analogous to the current case at the Supreme Court level.

Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States vs. Windsor, striking down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages, state and federal courts have passed numerous decisions recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Many court watchers believe that later this spring the Supreme Court will hand down a decision protecting marriage equality throughout the United States. If that is the federal court’s ruling on April 28, “the battle will ostensibly be won,” says Cleves.

Reframing knowledge

However, Cleves stresses that “the fight against discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender is ongoing, as evidenced in recent controversies over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Oklahoma’s new marriage bill.”

People need “to reframe knowledge and view it in new ways. Sometimes, popular social frameworks need to catch up with the evidence and the knowledge that many of us have at some level.”

“The stories I’ve uncovered are instantly relatable to our own experiences, our own family histories and to community histories. The examples are infinite.”

@RachelCleves and

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Keywords: history, marriage, human rights, United States, research

People: Rachel Hope Cleves

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