Long Before Gay Marriage

LGBTQ folk have lived in committed relationships for centuries and many scholars have written about historic queer relationships. As a young gay man, my introduction to gay history came from reading Judy Grahn’s book, Another Mother Tongue (1984, Beacon Press). In this book, I learned of gays, lesbians, and queer folk from around the world and throughout time having rituals, ceremonies, and status in their respective societies. These unions were not necessarily called marriage but were known as “life partnerships”, “romantic friendships”, “Boston marriages” and other labels.

“Boston marriage” was a term used in New England to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. A good example of a “Boston marriage” is found in Rachel Hope Cleves’s book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014, Oxford University Press). Charity and Sylvia met in 1807. They moved in together in Weybridge, Vermont on July 3, 1807. This date would mark their anniversary for the rest of their 44 years together. They did not live in hiding. Their community knew them and accepted them as a couple. They were public-minded, taught Sunday school, organized charities, supported their nephews and nieces, and ran a tailor shop. They were “Auntie Charity” and “Auntie Sylvia” to the entire community. Charity, like Willa Cather, was fiercely private about her letters and had her correspondents burn what she had written. Charity died in 1851, Sylvia died 17 years later. They are buried together with a shared headstone.

Another example of a 19th-century lesbian partnership comes from Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918 (2019, Minnesota Historical Society Press). Rose Cleveland was the sister of Grover Cleveland, 22nd U.S. President, and served as his First Lady until he married in 1886. Rose and Evangeline enjoyed a 30-year “marriage” and are buried next to each other in Tuscany.

Just this month, an article entitled The Gay Marriages of a Nineteenth-Century Prison Ship by Jim Downs (2 Jul 2020, The New Yorker) caught my eye.  This article should be of particular interest to genealogists because of the clever use of old records. Downs reviews the complaint letters of convict George Baxter Grundy, sentenced to 15 years in Bermuda for forgery.  Grundy writes about the soul-destroying and hellish conditions he endures in Bermuda, which includes witnessing men having sex with men, and that his fellow male convicts marry each other.  Grundy’s complaints against same-sex male relationships is an unintentional documentation of gay history.

Our queer history of committing to each other long pre-dates 21st-century marriage. Is it possible that one of your ancestors lived in a “marriage” that wasn’t called marriage?

Also see: