Same-Sex Unions: A Journey from our Early Christian Roots to Sarah’s and Suzie’s Wedding at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
Jane A. Page
Please contact the author for permission to use this paper or various parts of it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
I’m assisting in plans for a wedding for two close friends who will unite in holy union on June 9, 2001 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro. Although the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) community is somewhat divided on the issue of marriage, many are moving forward to formalize their commitments in religious and secular ceremonies. Sarah and Suzie have been close friends since they were adolescents. As adults, their friendship evolved to romantic love and partnership. They already are firmly committed to each other. But they want to make this commitment public in a ceremony celebrating their love. Sarah and Suzie want a wedding. In fact, Sarah and Susie want a June wedding with a cake and music and flowers. The majority of Statesboro, Georgia residents would be appalled with this idea. And there are those in the LGBT community who would say that marriage is a heterosexual institution and that gay folks should avoid any attempt to be like straight folks. But those of us at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro say, “Let Sarah and Suzie have their cake and eat it too!” And we are not alone. Holy Unions for gay and lesbian couples have been conducted in Unitarian Universalist institutions for approximately two decades with official sanction and promotion by the general assembly in 1984.
BE IT RESOLVED:That the 1984 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association:
1. Affirms the growing practice of some of its ministers of conducting services of union of gay and lesbian couples and urges member societies to support their ministers in this important aspect of our movement”s ministry to the gay and lesbian community; and 2. Requests that the Department of Ministerial and Congregational Services: a. distribute this information to Unitarian Universalist religious professionals and member societies; b. develop printed material for ministers to assist them in planning and conducting services of union for gay and lesbian couples; c. develop a pamphlet intended for laypersons which describes services of union for gay and lesbian couples and is distributed to member societies( http://www.uua.org/obgltc/resoltxt.html, p. 3).
And in 1996, the UUA General Assembly adopted a position of support of legal recognition for marriage between members of the same sex ( http://www.uua.org/obgltc/resoltxt.html, p. 10). Yes, Unitarian Universalists are on the cutting edge of this issue. How did we get here? According to Keith Kron, director of UUA’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns, the history is “poorly written and the best piece we have is on the website which is basically a list of dates” (personal communication, March 26, 2001).
The purpose of this study is to explore the church’s varying positions on same sex unions as well as homosexuality in general from our early Christian roots to the present day Unitarian Universalist practices.
I’ve collected data from both primary and secondary sources. All of the information from the early history was gleaned from books by historians. These individuals discovered and analyzed premodern documents that were usually in Latin or Greek. Material used for later history included books by historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and combinations of all. The most recent data were the most difficult to collect. I had access to the UUA resolutions and a list of historical dates and events via the UUA web page. Although I had hoped to gain access to speeches, sermons, letters and other documents which encouraged or discouraged the passage of the various resolutions by the Unitarian Universalists, I was not very successful. As I contacted individuals who I thought would have this information, they encouraged me to contact others and gave me additional names. I followed these leads and received more names. So I ended up with a great many names and few documents other than those that could be found on UUA’s web page. I shifted my plans (for now) to collecting recollections of individuals who may have participated in the passage of these resolutions. I used the Interweave listserve, the Meadville Lombard listserve, and a variety of referrals to collect these recollections.
In my attempts to contribute to the examination of this history, I am sometimes choosing to view history in the manner attributed to Michel Foucault. He viewed history as a collection of discourses and “truth effects” as well as rules and strategies wherebypower shapes its subjects (and they respond). This view could be categorized as a queer perspective (Foucault, 1990). Other information that I have collected lends itself to a more “straightforward” perspective advocated by Allen Frantzen (1998). Hopefully, this will not be confusing to the reader. It seems perfectly natural to me as a person who has lived and continues to live as a rather queer straight person.
The First Millennium
(and the ancient Greek and Roman World that gave it birth)
History is how the living know the dead, how the familiar know the unfamiliar; it is how the dead and the strange instruct the living, how life and death, the knowable and the unknowable, become mutually intelligible (Fradenburg and Freccero, 1996,p. xiii)
A More Tolerant World?
Christianity was birthed in what many may consider a more tolerant world. Writings of the Greeks and Romans included many positive references to same-sex lovers. However, a closer examination reveals that the intolerance was certainly there, although it was focused on other aspects of the relationship. Writers generally classified lovers as active or passive, with the active lover the more dominating as well as the penetrating lover. In this society, women were always supposed to be passive. Men who were higher in social class were expected to be the active partner, whether they were with women, male or female slaves, or young men. A male slave or young man who was a passive partner was not considered immoral any more than a woman as a partner was immoral. In fact, one historian reports that “it was shameful in Crete for a well-born boy not to have a lover” (Flaceliere, 1962, p. 66). High status men could be married and have a young male lover or male slave lover and be accepted. The intolerance emerged when individuals attempted to move into roles not befitting their class. This was seen as unnatural (Boswell, 1980, 1994, Brooten, 1996, Flaceliere, 1962).
Evidence of Same Sex Unions
Sixth Century Prayer for Union
O Lord our God, who made humankind in thine image and likeness and gave it power over all flesh everlasting, and who now hast approved thy saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of holy spirit and in the mode of faith, thou who didst consider thy saints and martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united, bless thy servants, N. and N., joined not by nature, but to love each other and to remain unhated and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God and ever virgin Mary. Because to thee belongs all glory, honor and worship (Translated by Boswell, 1994, p. 291).
In 1994, John Boswell, then a Professor at Yale and a highly regarded historian, “spawned a lively tempest” (Hewitt & Longley, 1994, p. 57) with the publication of his book, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. The book, not only documented the existence of same-sex unions, informal and formal, it also provided examples (in the original Greek with English translations) of official church rites and prayers. Critics have questioned whether or not these ceremonies can be considered similar to heterosexual marriages. In responding to this, Boswell emphasizes that marriages of that time were not like marriages of today. They were primarily arranged regarding a sharing and negotiation for property and perhaps power. In fact, many of the same-sex couples that were written about during that time period in literature, history, or poetry, also had heterosexual marriages. Boswell makes this interesting comparison of pre-modern Europe love and marriage with today’s culture.
In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in the middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married “for love,” but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences, Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends – often – about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory (pp. xxi-xxii).
A relative plethora of writing regarding same-sex relationships and unions was available in the ancient world. However, because of the ambiguity of terms in ancient Greek and Latin writings, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not those united in friendship or brotherhood were also lovers. Boswell emphasizes that this difficulty may also be related to great overlap in these possibilities.
Obviously Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero, and other ancient males had and knew friendships that were not erotic, and love relationships that were not friendships. The point is not that the two could not be distinguished, but that there was a substantial overlap, which is not a part of modern conceptualizations of friendship, owing to the pervasive taboo against homosexuality in modern nations (pp. 78-79).
The triumph of Christianity over other religions came at a time when there were many changes in regard to sexual and romantic relationships. These changes were evident among pagans, Jews, and Christians. For example, monogamy became the only acceptable marriage arrangement and divorce was discouraged. Marriage itself was seen as a compromise among the Christians with celibacy given higher regard. With this setting as a backdrop and with disclaimers regarding ambiguities in place, Boswell provides a description of several same-sex couples and the vows, prayers, and union ceremonies that he has discovered. These include the following.
1. Perpetua and Felicitas: These two women were post-biblical saints who were martyred for their beliefs in the third century.
2. St. Polyeuct and Nearchos: These Roman soldiers were described by Metaphrastes as “bound to each other by a friendship which was much stronger than blood or relationship, from which passionate union their souls were tightly bound together, each believing that he lived and breathed wholly in the other’s body” (p. 141).
3. Serge and Bacchus: These Roman soldiers became the “preeminent ‘couple’ invoked in the ceremony of same sex union” (p. 154).
Bernadette Brooten’s work, Love Between Women(1996) adds to Boswell’s work. The descriptions she has discovered of female unions in the Roman World (providing the cultural context for Early Christianity) come from all male sources. Therefore, the information cited is related to “male constructions of female homoeroticism, rather than to lesbians’ perceptions of themselves” (p. 25). Brooten discovered that the authors in that period demonstrated both awareness of sexual love between women and disgust for it. “Monstrous, lawless, licentious, unnatural, and shameful – with these terms male authors throughout the Roman Empire expressed their disgust for sexual love between women.” The early millennium texts analyzed by Brooten included love spells commissioned by women to attract other women, astrological texts, medical texts, and a dream-classification text. Actual names of couples discussed in Brooten’s text include:
1. Sophia and Gorgonia: Sophia uses a special oval shaped lead tablet with a 62 line spell to attract Gorgonia.
2. Nike and Pantous / Paitous: Spell calls on the spirit of a dead person to force Nike to fall in love with Pantous / Paitous.
Most of Brooten’s text does not provide names of couples in discussions of women loving women but instead provides evidence of how astronomers, physicians, and dream experts treated these “diseases of the soul” (p. 125). In these cases, the early authors saw women who pursued women as attempting to take the place of men. The “treatment” included mind control or clitoridectomy.
Early Christian Views
In 1980, Boswell published his earlier scholarly study of the history of attitudes toward homosexuality entitled Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. This book (which resulted from over ten years of research and analysis of documents and records in a multitude of languages) was heralded by historians, philosophers, and other social scientists as groundbreaking work in the field. In it, Boswell states that Christianity came to power in the Roman world during a period of profound crisis. He credits two aspects of the dramatic changes of this period to the decline of Roman tolerance on sexual issues. The first factor was the growing ruralization of the formerly urban cultural centers of Roman civilization. The second was the increasing absolutism of the Roman government. “By the late fourth century many citizens could no longer choose their religion, their occupation, their place of residence, or even their favorite athletic team without imperial interference” (p. 121). Boswell attributes the expanding intolerance to these factors rather than to Christianity itself.
Since Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire from the fourth century on and was the only organized force to survive the final disintegration of Roman institutions in the West after the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, it became the conduit through which the narrower morality of the later Empire reached Europe. It was not, however, the author of this morality. The dissolution of the urban society of Rome and the ascendance of less tolerant political and ethical leadership occasioned a steady restriction of sexual freedom which transcended credal boundaries (pp. 127-128).
In her analysis of the views of the early church regarding lesbian relationships, Brooten (1996) draws a similar conclusion.
If early Christians had not condemned sexual relations between women within a gendered framework of active and passive, natural and unnatural, then they would have been unique in the Roman world in so doing…. Some prior researchers have tended to take an apologetic pro-Christian stance and to see early Christian sexual values as of a higher moral level than those of their environment. Other researchers have viewed early Christians as proto-Puritanical and repressive in contrast to the more sex-positive pagans around them. My research is more in line with those researchers who see a continuity between non-Christian and Christian understandings of the body (p. 1).
The Early Middle Ages
A controversy exists among historians regarding the level of tolerance the Church had for same-sex relations in the early middle ages. Boswell provides examples in his 1994 text of ceremonies and prayers which imply that medieval Christianity was not particularly homophobic. In his earlier (1980) work, he points to the lack of ecclesiastical legislation against homosexual behavior. “Almost without exception the few laws against homosexual behavior passed before the thirteenth century were enacted by civil authorities without advice or support from the church” (p. 174). And outside of Spain, where the ruling barbarian Visgoths singled out Jews and gay people as scapegoats in efforts to enforce conformity in many other areas, laws against homosexual relations were rare. Laws against other areas related to sexuality were numerous in almost every area of Europe. Boswell’s research also seems to support the church as an institution upholding marriage as inevitable for adult males (including clergy) and therefore viewing any relations outside of that marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) as adultery. Penalties that were identified were similar for both. “Homosexuality is given no greater attention than other sins and, viewed comparatively, appears to have been thought less grave than such common activities as hunting” (p. 180). Allen Frantzen (1998) disagrees with this perception that the early middle ages were more tolerant and uses Anglo Saxon penitentials to substantiate his claim.
…by viewing the evidence less selectively than Boswell did, we can see that it is possible to reverse his now-standard paradigm and argue that the early medieval period was actually less tolerant of same-sex relations than the later period…. Indeed, tolerance of same-sex relations is easier to hypothesize for the later Middle Ages than for the early period (p. 2)
After reading these texts and as well as excerpts of others published in earlier periods (Ellis, 1936, Bailey, 1955, Noonan, 1965, and Bullough, 1976), I am not convinced that the documents reviewed by the historians can provide us with a clear view of the level of tolerance. Indeed, the absence of penitentials, as described by Boswell (1980), can be viewed as unconcern because of the rarity of an act, or at least of that act being confessed! I amconvinced, after reading many of the prayers and ceremonies, that the church did perform services uniting same-sex couples in loving relationships. However, I am equally convinced that they believed their love was of a higher nature. Perhaps when uniting these couples, the church authorities did not allow themselves to “think out loud” about the various possibilities of expressing this love.
The Second Millennium
The New Europe
Invigorated, transformed and launched upon the route of progress, the new Europe resembled, in short, more the ancient Europe than the Europe of Carolingian times. For it was out of antiquity that she regained that essential characteristic of being a region of cities (Pirenne, 1952, 103).
A major transformation took place in Europe between the 10th and 14th centuries as cities began to grow and develop once more. The revival of major urban centers coincides with a revival of a gay subculture in Europe. Additionally, “love” was on the rise!
Apart from the monastic clergy, love does not appear to have been a concern to tenth-century Europeans in any context: theological, moral, sexual, or emotional. Twelfth-century Europeans, especially in the urban areas, do not seem to have been able to think of much else (Boswell, 1980, p. 209).
In the secular world, renewed contact with the writings and achievements of the ancient world (made possible by the records preserved by Islamic society), contributed to a change in attitudes toward gay people. In the church, attitudes were also changed but in two different directions according to Boswell (1980).
A small, vociferous group of ascetics revived the violent hostility…, claiming that homosexual acts were not only sinful but gravely so, more comparable to murder than to gluttony or fornication…. Meanwhile, another party within the church began to assert the positive value of homosexual relations and celebrated them in an outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world (p. 210).
Saint Peter Damien was a leader among the first group. Damien’s Book of Gomorrah has been described by Frantzen (1998) as “the single most powerful polemic against same-sex behavior written in the Middle Ages” (p. 233). Damien brought accusations against priests for having sexual relations with their spiritual advisees and said that many of these priests avoided penalties by confessing to other gay clergy. He urged Pope Saint Leo IX to take drastic action and remove the offending clerics from their offices. Leo’s reply was less drastic than Peter’s demand. Instead, he declared that clerics who had not participated in such activities as a “long standing practice or with many men” should remain in rank and only those who were most severely sinful degraded to a lower rank (Boswell, 1980, p. 212).
The second group included what Boswell (1980) refers to as a gay subculture. Interestingly enough, the majority of these poets were “prominent churchmen in positions of considerable ecclesiastical authority” (p. 244). Efforts to remove clerics in Europe and England were made with indifference displayed on the part of the authorities. Ironically this indifference came at a time when the most strenuous efforts were being made to make sure that all clerics remain unmarried. Boswell (1980) discovered some evidence of a power struggle because of this between gay and married clergy. He quotes a satirical literature passage in which a married cleric expresses his frustration.
You who pass new laws and enact harsh statutes
To would us, first correct that eveil
Which is more seriously damaging and further from the law.
Why do you fail to afflict the sodomites with any serious penalty?
This type of sickness (through which a somber end might come upon the race)
Ought by rights to be rooted out first (p. 217).
Frantzen (1998) includes lists of penances used in England during this period as evidence of the church’s response (and sometimes non-response) to same-sex behavior. He notes that many of these penances, however, were used for educational purposes. Indeed, young people often did not know of the severity of a particular sin until they were questioned about various acts and educated by the clerics during the confession. Additionally clerics were encouraged not to question too deeply for fear of suggesting sins to the parishioners that they had not yet considered, and thereby, encouraging their fulfillment of curiosity in the area .
Later Middle Ages
The intolerance that increased during the later middle ages could not be attributable to the “urban/rural” dichotomy described earlier. In fact the increase in intolerance is more of a mystery for historians. One possibility relates to the Inquisition. This movement arose to consolidate theological opinions. Secular knowledge was also standardized. A plethora of civil and ecclesiastical laws were enacted to ensure conformity. The loss of freedom was more costly for disadvantaged groups, including women and minorities, especially Jews. And that environment was not conducive for the continuation of tolerance for same-sex lovers. As the inquisition continued, an association of homosexuality with heresy became apparent. Boswell (1980) provides three possible reasons.
- Many heretics actually were gay.
- Heretical movements may have been more sympathetic toward homosexuality than was orthodox Catholicism.
- Some gay people may have been branded heretics for refusing to renounce their erotic preferences (p. 284).
Unitarian Universalists today might find this association particularly interesting as many of our members take pride in being identified as heretics and as gay or gay friendly.
Coming to America
The first documentation of same-sex marriage in the Americas came from Spanish explorers describing the Natives. Some time between 1528 and 1536, Cabeza de Vaca observed Indian men of Florida who participated in cross-dressing and were “married” to each other.. Another explorer, Torquemada, wrote about 1609 of mariones (effeminate men) among the natives of Florida, who cross-dressed and were married to other men. Some explorers also reported native same-sex marriages in the Illinois area. It is interesting to note that these marriages were reported only by Spanish explorers and not by English explorers (Katz, 1983).
The early English settlers were obviously aware of possible same-sex temptations and used laws and practices to prevent these possibilities as well as heterosexual activities outside of a marriage relationship. Many New England laws even ruled against single men (and of course women) living with others or alone outside of marriage. If they were not married, they were to seek residence with another married couple (Katz 1983, History Project, 1998). Katz describes three legal activities which provide examples of the restrictive environment.
- In 1639, the Plymouth Colony court prosecuted Anthony Bessie for “living alone disorderly,” and “for taking in an inmate” (a male, undoubtedly) without permission – indicating the difficulties facing men who might wish to establish a living arrangement outside the household of a married couple.
- In 1639, Plymouth magistrates did license two unmarried men, John Carew and Edmund Weston, to live together and cooperate “in working and planting.” But a qualification is revealing: Carew was allowed “to be for himself upon the continuance of the good report of his carriage & demeanor…
- In 1653, a Plymouth court ordered Teage Jones, Richard Berry, and others “to part their uncivil living together.” (Three years earlier, Joanes and Berry had been mentioned in this court’s records when Berry had lodged, and later withdrawn, a “sodomy” charge against Joanes.) (p. 32)
The early New England settlers viewed sodomy and buggery as horrific sins punishable by death. Preachers needing to bring forth fear to a particular community (in order to invoke more control) used the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In his 1674 sermon “The Cry of Sodom,” the Reverend Samuel Danforth of Duxbury drew an explicit parallel between the biblical city of Sodom and the settlements of New England. According to Danforth, allowing sodomitcal behavior to go unpunished was to risk calling down the wrath of God upon the state, just as the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah provoked fire from the Heavens (History Project, 1998, p. 6).
Even though these hellfire sermons were not uncommon, the statistics for discovery and prosecution for this capital offense are scant. In fact, “only two executions in New England were reported for the act of sodomy” (History Project, 1998, p. 7). The Puritans were even less likely to bring charges against women having relationships with other women since those relationships did not fit the penetrating model of sodomy. The only colony to include laws against same-sex relations between women was New Haven, which cited St. Paul’s admonition to the Church at Rome: “And: if any woman change the natural use, into that which is against nature as she shall be liable to the same sentence and punishment [of death]” (History Project, 1998 p.18)..
Numerous documents from the colonial days have been collected by curators of The History Project. The compilation and supporting narrative was published by Beacon Press with the titleImproper Bostonians. None of these documents referred to “same-sex marriages.” However, the compilation does include love letters between colonial men and between women. It’s difficult to determine whether or not these men and women would have been considered gay or lesbian since those concepts and even the concept of homosexual is a more recent invention. This is especially true since it was more acceptable for one to express his or her love to friends than it later came to be when America became so homophobic. However, when reading the letters, one can easily be persuaded that more than a simple friendship existed. For example, Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of evangelist Jonathan Edwards and mother of Aaron Burr, exchanged romantic letters for seven years with Sarah Prince, the daughter of a Boston minister. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by Burr to Prince on February 8, 1755.
What! These scrawls enjoy the privilege of being handled in the most free and intimate manner and I deprived! In short I have good mind to seal up my self in the Letter and try if I cant Rival it(p. 26).
The History Project’s publication also includes biographies of numerous individuals in the Boston area in the late 18th and early 19th century that current historians and curators view as having committed same-sex relationships which “often reached a level of intensity that equaled heterosexual marriage” (p. 33). Their attempts to identify individuals with the gay community is similar to what we as Unitarian Universalists do in identifying early Americans as Unitarians. ( If we read their writings and identify their ideas as being similar to what those later identified as Unitarians came to believe, then we justify their identification as Unitarian although they would probably never have referred to themselves in that manner.) The colonial churches did not seem to have a problem with these intimate same-sex friendships and, in fact, many of these men and women were closely associated with churches. Of course, the History Project viewed the letters, diary entries, and writings through rather queer lens while the 18thcentury church authorities used different spectacles.
Nineteenth Century America: Prime Time for Intimate Friendships and Love of Comrades
Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown…. Walt Whitman
The industrialization of the Northeast, a civil war, and continued westward expansion accompanied by the spread of religion provided a diverse and fluid environment for the development of same-sex relationships. These activities in America had as a backdrop the events taking place in Europe (including the trial of Oscar Wilde). Three topics of Special interest are: (1) Walt Whitman and Friends, (2) Boston Marriages, and (3) the Iowa Sisterhood.
Walt Whitman and Friends
In 19th century America, intimate relationships between people of the same sex were sanctioned and encouraged. Major figures including Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Louisa Mae Alcott extolled the virtues of same-sex friendships. (Note: many of these influential thinkers and writers considered themselves to be Unitarian.) It was in this environment that Walt Whitman wrote and published poems that current readers may identify as gay. This was before, however, there was any positive identification such as “gayness” for sexual or affectional orientation. One of his intimate friends, Peter Doyle, attempted to describe Whitman’s disposition. “I never knew a case of Walt’s being bothered up by a woman. His disposition was different. Woman in that sense never came into his head” (Miller 1995, p. 6). Whitman denied that his poetry was connected to “morbid inferences.” His life, as depicted by interviews with friends, readings of his journal (or logs of young men he had slept with) as well as his poetry and letters would strongly suggest that Whitman’s desire for “love of comrades” can and should be celebrated by those of us who celebrate same-sex love.
The late 19th Century brought economic changes which, when coupled with the continuing tradition of romantic friendships, made it possible for two women to live together in a primary relationship. These women were generally financially independent because of inheritance or career and were usually feminists. Unlike many of the short lived liaisons between men of that day, these relationships were often life long. Some of the most admired and successful women of that era had what some have termed a Boston Marriage. These women included Jane Addams, founder of the settlement house movement, M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Maur College, Mary Garrett, a millionaire philanthropist, Sarah Orne Jenett, a novelist, Willa Cather, a novelist, and Mary Wooley, president of Mount Holyoke College. Because many of these women were involved in education or reforms that were supported by liberal religion, the liberal church was generally supportive of them. Historians blame the sexologists, psychologists, and the medical community for creating lesbianism as a deviant category and using it to attack the reform movement. (Miller, 1995, History Project, 1998).
The Iowa Sisterhood
Westward expansion in America provided an interesting opportunity for women. Folks settling the frontier were less bound to the old ways of doing things. These new states provided unprecedented rights to women. Additionally since the new communities needed professionals (including doctors, dentists, and lawyers), women who could not obtain licenses in the East were provided with the hand of welcome in the West. And when few men were ready to take on the low-paying and difficult work of organizing new Unitarian churches, the women filled that void and were in command of the denominational growth in that region for two decades. Cynthia Grant Tucker (1990) provides a wonderful group biography of these women with pioneer spirits entitled Prophetic Sisterhood. The ministers included Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon, Marion Murdock, Caroline Bartlett Crane, Eliza Tupper Wilkes, Florence Buck, Mary Colson, Mary Leggett, Adele Fuchs, Mary Jenney Howe, Ida Hultin, Rowena Mann, Celia Parker Woolley and others. Many of these women were childhood friends and formed close bonds that lasted a lifetime. They often lived and worked together and expressed love for each other. In an April 27, 2001 posting to Alicia Forsey’s online UU History Course at Starr King, Tucker discussed the possible identification of the women as lesbians.
Were I to revise the text for today’s audience so as not to suggest I were skittish about naming what I see as empowering life choices. Were I able to revise the text today, I would put the word (lesbian) in. At the time, however, I feared that by using it I would suggest that this was the defining characteristic of the women’s relationships. I share your … disappointment that more has not yet been written about gay and lesbian experience in our tradition. They themselves would have found such a designation reductive and foreign, I think (Tucker, personal communication, April 27, 2001).
The Invention and Medicalization of the Homosexual
For most of history, sexual relations with persons of the same sex was not looked at as a medical problem. It was a one of many sexual sins including adultery, rape, incest, etc. However, in the late 19thcentury, the medical community began to look at this behavior differently. It was during this time that the word “homosexual” began to be used.
In the 1860’s, Karl Maria Kertbeny coined “homosexual” in preference to “pederast,” the derogatory term for men who had sex with each other that was in common use in the Germany of his time. According to Kertbeny, many homosexuals are more masculine than ordinary men and are often superior to run of the mill heterosexuals who tend, in his opinion, toward rape and mayhem because they are oversexed. Kertbeny hoped that his new word and his definition of it would help to eliminate Paragraph 175, Germany’s oppressive anti-pederasty law, but the strategy didn’t work. Instead, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and other doctors adopted it as a diagnosis for mental pathology
( http://www.gayhistory.com/rev2/words/homosexual.htm ).
Psychiatrists, hoping for a rise in the prestige of treating mental diseases began to categorize a variety of sexual inversions as illnesses that they could treat. Many of the individuals who were attracted to others of the same sex and who had participated in sexual activity with same-sex partners were glad to now be thought of as just sick instead of sinful and depraved. Others insisted they were neither sick nor sinful. Although this history is from the late 19 th century, it’s interesting to note a resurgence in this view by conservative organizations and religious groups now promoting the practices of “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy” (Just the Facts, 1999).
The Creation of the Homosexual Minority in America
Although the Stonewall Rights of 1969 are often celebrated as the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America, historians (Miller 1955, D’Emilio 1983&1998, http://www.gayhistory.com) have provided appropriate credit to those who paved the way. Events preceding Stonewall which shifted thinking and action are summarized below.
1905 – Sigmund Freud “invents” sexuality and rejects views of many in the medical profession that homosexuality has hereditarian causes. His views are rejected, however, are rejected by physicians and psychologists. By the 1950s, American psychoanalysts universally agreed that homosexuality is a mental illness and used their considerable influence to support the mistreatment of gay and lesbian people.
1924 – Henry Gerber and three of his “inverted” friends form the Society for Human Rights and publish the first gay magazine. He failed to generate support from other homosexuals who were afraid to become active in liberation efforts.
1948 – Alfred Kinsey publishedSexual Behavior in the Human Male with statistics that shocked many Americans and helped to validate the existence of a homosexual minority.
1950 – Senate bowed to pressure and authorized investigation into the alleged employment of homosexuals and “and other moral perverts” in government followed by intense scrutiny of individuals private lives in the government, in the military and in private enterprises as well as increasing arrests and harassment.
1950 – Harry Hay met with friends and formed the Mattachine Society with the purpose of “liberating one of our largest minorities from … social persecution” (D’Emilio 1998, 9)
1953 – First publication of ONE, a magazine for homosexuals published by some members of the Mattachine Society.
1953 – Alfred Kinsey publishedSexual Behavior in the Human Female, the companion piece for the 1948 publication.
1955 – Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and 6 other women form Daughters of Bilitis with the purpose of encouraging women to”fight for the understanding of the homophile minority” (D’Emilio, 1998, p. 103).
1961 – Formation of League for Civil Education in San Francisco, conceived as a democratic alternative to the tightly run Mattachine Society; began publication of LCE News
1964 – Formation of Society for Individual Rights (SIR) with the aim of forming more of a “community” among gay men..
1965 – Militant faction advocating civil rights takes over Mattachine Society with 2/3 majority.
1966 – North American Conference on Homophile Organizations (NACHO) forms in Kansas providing a means for the various organizations to cooperate.
One might assume that Unitarian Universalists were fully supportive of the efforts made by the homophile organizations since they began passing supportive resolutions as early as 1970. A closer look demonstrates that the majority of UU’s of that era would not agree with the objectives of these societies. The Unitarian Universalist Association conducted a survey of a representative sample of its members in 1966 and published the results of that survey in 1973. One of the items was devised to explore members’ attitudes toward the encouragement or discouragement of homosexuality by law and/or education. Four options were given for members to choose regarding homosexuality.
- Should be discouraged by law.
- Should be discouraged by education, not by law.
- Should not be discouraged by law or education.
- Should be encouraged.
While only seven percent of the respondents felt that homosexuality should be discouraged by law, 80% felt that it should be discouraged by education. Even those who were self described left wing UU’s were fully behind the idea of discouraging homosexuality (Tapp, 1973, p. 89).
Gay Liberation and Unitarian Universalism
June 27, 1969 is the date many gay people mark as the beginning of the liberation movement and the transition in their identification from homosexual to “gay.” On that date, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich village bar. The bar patrons response was not expected. They rioted throughout the weekend. New York’s Gay Liberation Front was founded soon afterward and “Gay Power” spread rapidly to other cities (Cruikshank, 1992). The movement was further encouraged by the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. Since this is recent history, most readers of this report are familiar with the tremendous backlash that has accompanied the movement in the last quarter of the 20th century. But like Civil Rights and Liberation Movements for minorities and women, there would be no turning back.
In September of that same year (1969), the Reverend James L. Stoll publically acknowledged that he was gay at a UU youth conference (LRY) in Colorado ( http://www.uua.org/obgltc/history.html , p. 1). Unfortunately, he never served a congregation after that. The statistics revealed in UUA’s survey of its membership in the late 60’s had not yet been published. But if the attitudes expressed by the respondents were, indeed, representative of UU members, it is not surprising that this minister’s coming out was not warmly welcomed by congregations. It seems surprising, therefore, that the General Assembly passed a resolution in 1970 to end discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. One long-time UUer provided this explanation. “The matter got little opposition and little attention at the time. The process for introducing a resolution was far simpler than it would become in later years. One person . . . did the basic work. Lobbying was not extensive; the UU Gay Caucus did not yet exist, emerging only later.” (Pederson, personal communication, May 19, 2001). Nevertheless, the activists understood the power of resolutions to not only reflect opinions and attitudes, but to shape them as well. The denomination had been through bitter power struggles related to the methods for addressing race and, therefore, gay activists wanted to be sure to appropriately caucus and organize as they attempted to work on gay concerns. The UU Gay Caucus, led by The Rev. Richard Nash and Elgin Blair, lobbied successfully for the creation of the Office of Gay Concerns in 1973. Since that time fifteen addition resolutions supportive of gay concerns have been passed by the UU General Assembly
( http://www.uua.org/obgltc/restitle.html ).
The Marriage Thing
In 1984 the General Assembly passed a business resolution affirming the practice of UUA clergy performing services of union between same-gender couples. The resolution also requested that the Department of Ministerial and Congregational Services develop and distribute supporting materials. This resolution was not as easily passed as the 1970 resolution. The resolution first came up for a vote in 1982. It was defeated that year and the next year. Several other resolutions on gay issues that had been brought forward since 1970 had passed on the first try. So marriage was somewhat of a hurdle, even for Unitarian Universalists. One of the members of the Gay Caucus provided her recollections of the 1983 failed attempt.
In 1983, we in the caucus went to GA knowing from the year before that we were facing clearly expressed opposition on a matter that wouldn’t cost the Association a dime, and we didn’t have a clear sense of what to do to overcome that opposition. Some of the leaders of previous resolution work were already dead or dying from complications of AIDS, and many of the rest were understandable more engaged in life-or death issues of their own, their lovers’, or their friends’ than with intra-denominational squabbling. We tried to get effective speakers at microphones, to do all the logistical things that matter, but I’m not sure that we ever managed to understand what motivated other delegates to oppose the resolution that year, and we failed (Pederson, personal communication, May 19, 2001).
The difficulty of passing the first marriage resolution is understandable. After all, UU’s were alsobrought up in an extremely homophobic society and had been taught that marriage was a holy union between a man and a woman. One minister explained his difficulty in embracing and performing same sex marriages.
I personally have shared in this experience of growing up in a homophobic culture. “Queers” and “faggots” were objects of derision, easy condemnation, and scapegoating, in my experience. I didn’t know any gays or lesbians and I wouldn’t want to. Being gay was utterly repugnant to me, and I was deeply threatened by it. It wasn’t until I met a wonderful, well-adjusted, Unitarian Universalist minister about 25 years ago, who happened to be gay, that I started to seriously challenge my own prejudices. Over the years, the more gay men and lesbians I came to know, the more comfortable I became…. One’s sexual orientation, I came to realize, is but a small part of a person’s personality and character. Still, over the years, while my comfort increased, my uneasiness persisted, and with respect to the prospect of performing gay marriages, my cautious nature still presided. I was ready in my “head,” but not yet in my “gut” (Kennedy, 1997, p. 6).
This UU minister indicated that he had moved through the stages of repugnance to tolerance to acceptance, but was not yet to the stage of affirmation. He did find that he was ready by 1995, though, and has been performing and celebrating same-sex unions since that time. His journey is one that many UU ministers have taken while others are still in route. They have discovered what one 69 year old Canadian Unitarian shared with a group of University of British Columbia students in a presentation about the Bible and homosexuality back in 1978. “What is considered “natural” says more about the attitudes of those making such assessments, than it does about the activity being assessed” (Elrod, 1978, p. 3). The following quotes are representative of the joys and concerns UU ministers shared regarding conducting same sex marriages.
I have conducted many services of union for same-sex couples. Mostly I am impressed that they are both surprised and extremely grateful that an established congregation in their communities will welcome them, bless them and conduct the ceremony. For many of these folk’s families, the presence and support of an institution is important and affirmative (Tolley, personal communication, May 22, 2001).
(Referring to his first time conducting a same sex marriage in 1977) It gave me great pleasure to be able to help this couple feel that their love was recognized by a church and that the son of one of them could feel that his parents’ relationship was okay. I have performed several other gay or lesbian services of union and felt good about both the process prior to the wedding… and about the services themselves (Murray, personal communication, May 24, 2001).
I have (conducted same sex unions) for twenty years. My joys are that people seem so pleased to have their relationships recognized in such a way, and that they enter into the planning so whole-heartedly. My concerns, as with any couple, is how they will deal with unresolved issues from their first families, not during the union, but in their life together (Anonymous, personal communication, May 24, 2001).
It was a great joy to perform my first service of union (I’ve performed two now) for church members where I was a summer minister. I remember that I started off by thinking that I would treat it no differently than any other wedding, because for me they’re the same. However, I realized that I couldn’t do anything the same when I asked my usual pre-marital counseling question of “are your families supportive of this union.” The situations with family members in gay and lesbian services of union are much more complicated…. That was when I realized that the couple, and all those attending, needed some special statements from me (Anonymous, personal communication, May 22, 2001).
(Referring to a wedding held near Statesboro, Georgia): After the union was complete, (the couple’s) families, their friends who weren’t UU’s and those of us who are, gathered around the reception that was held in the carport of Daddy’s trailer. As “the preacher,” I made an effort to mingle among the different groups of friends, family, and church members who were gathered that day in support of this union of two women in the new South. I remember a member of (one of the women’s) family was explaining that a relative of theirs was not expected to come because she had objected to the whole affair due to her fundamental Christian beliefs. To everyone’s delight, she arrived soon after the reception began. I was struck by how the whole event was such an entry into a new world, folded so perfectly and without much seam, into the way things have always been (Alderman, personal communication, May 15, 2001).
The union ceremonies seem to be celebrated more by younger Unitarian Universalists. A 27 year old lesbian seminarian student shared her experience.
It was a very moving experience to have our minister and our congregation support us in our union. One great part was at the end of the service when the minister said “by the power vested in me by this congregation, I pronounce you married” (Crew, personal communication, May 23, 2001).
UU members that had been in long time committed relationships were not as likely to have had a Union ceremony. A 55 year old lesbian minister explained:
My partner and I have been together for 22 years, but when we met in seminary and decided to share our lives, not so many people were (having union ceremonies) and we were a little shy. I regret that we never did it. I hope that we can have some sort of celebration on our 25th(Anonymous, personal communication, May 24, 2001).
Objections to Same-Sex Unions
Of course, there are objections to same-sex unions that are not those of conservative right-wing individuals. One ministerial student expressed these concerns very vividly.
My objective goes back to the fact that unions (same-sex) are attempting to mimic marriages (opposite-sex) and to obtain the same rights offered to those within a marriage both in civic (legal) terms and socially (inclusion/acceptance). Looking at the history of marriage, I find little to celebrate in terms of the position of women. I believe many are thinking within this framework without questioning whether the framework is valid in and of itself…. Also, marriages in Western society are said to offer privileges not available to those who are not married. This point of privilege is not questioned. Inequities regarding how single individuals are treated in society are rarely challenged because of the focus on “the family” in our society – family being assumed to be a opposite sex grouping of adult(s) and children…. Even if family is redefined to include unions, my concerns are not resolved. I believe “the family” and “the individual” must not be placed in competition (Maytee, personal communication, May 24, 2001).
Others also expressed concern with the institution of marriage and questioned the desirability of lesbian and gay men wanting to participate in an institution that seemed to be headed to bankruptcy. These views, however, were definitely in the minority. And although the points are extremely valid, the possibilities for elimination of marriage are not pragmatic. A more reachable solution may be to provide acceptable alternatives. But the gay community does, indeed, desire to have the same alternatives, including legal marriages.
At General Assembly in 1996, a resolution was passed supporting legal marriages for same-sex couples. According to one observer, this resolution seemed to “sweep in on a wave of political correctness.” One controversy seemed to be connected to a surprise photo-opportunity initiated by John Buehren’s invitation for those in committed same-sex relationships to join him at the front of the assembly. There was considerable “grumbling” about the maneuver and the possibility of a backlash was a concern before the vote. The resolution was a good one, however, and passed with little difficulty (Pederson, personal communication, May 19, 2001). The resolution supported activity by gay activists that was boosted by a 1994 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that “the state’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples appears to violate the equal protection guarantee of the state constitution prohibiting discrimination based on gender” (Lamda, 1996, p. 4). This ruling set off a flurry of activity, not only in Hawaii, but in numerous other states and in the U.S. Congress to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and to pass laws indicating that marriages would not be recognized if they did not fulfill this criterion. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed overwhelmingly in the house and senate and signed into law by President Clinton on September 21, 1996. And this political activity continues into the new millennium.
The Turn of the Millennium
As we turn the millennium corner, UU ministers and lay members are working in many states to bring legalized marriages into reality. For example, in Vermont, Jane Dwinell, a UU minister and an Interweave board member, addressed the legislature as they considered a proposal for civil unions. An excerpt from her remarks follow:
As a Unitarian Universalist, I am called to speak out against injustice and for civil rights, thus I am here today to let the Vermont Legislature know that there are people of faith who are in favor of same gender marriage and civil unions…. I ask the members of the Legislature to look past the smoke screen of Scripture, past their own possible personal discomfort with same gender relationships, past the threats they may have received concerning their political futures – and to look into their hearts, and do what is right. I am proud to be a Vermonter, and a Unitarian Universalist, and to serve as a religious leader in my community. And now I ask that same gender unions be acknowledged, honored, protected and respected by the State of Vermont – a state that has a long and proud history of honoring and protecting all of its citizens (http://www.qrd.org/www/orgs/uua/uu-interweave-press.html).
The act was passed on April 25, 2000. To date, Vermont is the only state to recognize same-sex unions. UU minsters and lay people are joining other activists in other states to replicate this progress. And when one writes the history of the third millennium, these incremental changes may be seen as the building blocks of a revolution. Foucault (1990) shared his view of resistances over time and space in The History of Sexuality:
Are their no great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions, then? Occasionally, yes. But more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance (emphasis mine), producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds (p. 96).
Will we be participants in a “point of resistence” on June 9, 2001 when we celebrate the union of Sarah and Suzie? Perhaps so. But Sarah and Suzie are not dreaming of resistance and revolution. Their dreams are of making a life together, raising a child or maybe two, and growing older together in love.
When I was a little girl of about 8 or 9 in the late 50’s, I used to have some unusual dreams. In one of my dreams, I saw people driving their house trailers instead of pulling them behind their cars. When I awoke, I thought, that’s really strange. But it’s not strange to me today. We see motor homes all the time now. I also had a dream that I went to someone’s home and lots of people were there. Perhaps it was a party. There were lots of grown-ups and children at this party. Some of the women had their husbands with them. But some of the women were married to other women. And some of the men were married to other men. When I awoke, I thought, that’s really strange. But it’s not strange to me today.
I have a vision. I envision a world where there will be no need for words like homophobia or even labels categorizing one’s sexual orientation. People will love who they love because they love them. And they’ll love each other for as long as they possibly can. And since my higher power is the Power of Love; for me – God is Love; God will look at that world and say,
“ It is good!“
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© 2001 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.