Chapter One For the First Time Ever? SAME-SEX NARRUAGE IN HISTORYOne of the recurring clichés of the same-sex marriage debate is that the very notion of such a thing is a radical departure from anything entertained before in human history. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In many cultures and in many eras, the issue has emerged-and the themes of the arguments are quirkily similar. Same-sex love, as Plato's Symposium shows, is as ancient as human love, and the question of how it is recognized and understood has bedeviled every human civilization. In most, it has never taken the form of the modern institution of marriage, but in some, surprisingly, it has. In seventeenth-century China and nineteenth-century Africa, for example, the institution seems identical to opposite-sex marriage. In other cultures (see the debate between Brent Shaw and Ralph Hexter) the meaning of same-sex unions remains opaque and complex. In Native American society, marriage between two men was commonplace, but its similarity to contemporary lesbian and gay marriages is far from evident. And today in a number of foreign countries, laws extending civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples have been or will soon be enacted. Judge for yourself what this might mean for our current convulsion. One thing emerges clearly: this issue is not a modern invention. The need to balance human dignity and social norms is as old as civilization itself. Although much of the past history of this debate has been buried until recently, it has begun to emerge again with all the passion that now crackles through modern Western culture. The Speech of Aristophanes PLATOFrom the
Symposium, by Plato
, translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, 1989 In a dialogue on the meaning of love, Plato writes a masterpiece for his sometime sparring partner, the playwright Aristophanes, to explain the mystery of our desire for one other person. This passage follows Aristophanes's myth about the origins of human beings. In the beginning, Aristophanes conjectures, humans were essentially two people combined, each with two heads, four feet and four arms. There were three sexes: those with two male halves, those with two female halves, and those with one of each (the "androgynous" sort). At one point, however, Zeus, to punish humans for misbehaving, cut each human in two. Since then, each half wanders the earth in search of its lost other half, creating homosexual men, lesbians, and heterosexuals. Notice how same-sex love is put on the same plane as opposite-sex love, but also see how marriage is not identified with it.
Each of us, then, is a "matching half" of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him. That's why a man who is split from the double sort (which used to be called "androgynous") runs after women. Many lecherous men have come from this class, and so do the lecherous women who run after men. Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented. While they are boys, because they are chips off the male block, they love men and enjoy lying with men and being embraced by men; those are the best of boys and lads, because they are the most manly in their nature. Of course, some say such boys are shameless, but they're lying. It's not because they have no shame that such boys do this, you see, but because they are bold and brave and masculine, and they tend to cherish what is like themselves. Do you want me to prove it? Look, these are the only kind of boys who grow up to be politicians. When they're grown men, they are lovers of young men, and they naturally pay no attention to marriage or to making babies, except insofar as they are required by local custom. They, however, are quite satisfied to live their lives with one another unmarried. In every way, then, this sort of man grows up as a lover of young men and a lover of Love, always rejoicing in his own kind.
And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, whether it's to young men or not, then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don't want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment.
These are the people who finish out their lives together and still cannot say what it is they want from one another. No one would think it is the intimacy of sex-that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other. It's obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle. Suppose two lovers are lying together and Hephaestus stands over them with his mending tools, asking, "What is it you human beings really want from each other?" And suppose they're perplexed, and he asks them again: "Is this your heart's desire, then-for the two of you to become parts of the same whole, as near as can be, and never to separate, day or night? Because if that's your desire, I'd like to weld you together and join you into something that is naturally whole, so that the two of you are made into one. Then the two of you would share one life, as long as you lived, because you would be one being, and by the same token, when you died, you would be one and not two in Hades, having died a single death. Look at your love, and see if this is what you desire: wouldn't this be all the good fortune you could want?"
Surely you can see that no one who received such an offer would turn it down; no one would find anything else that he wanted. . . . A Groom of One's Own? BRENT D. SHAW Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe: A Response RALPH HEXTER
The New Republic, July 18 and 24, 1994; and October 3, 1994 The publication of Yale historian John Boswell's book
Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe created a furor in 1994. The media hyped the notion that Boswell had discovered same-sex marriage rites from the ancient world, although his own work made far more sophisticated claims. Instead of extracting from the book itself, I've reprinted here a penetrating review that outlines the book's main arguments and attempts to refute them. It is followed by Ralph Hexter's response to the review, which shows that an accurate reading of the past can often be a complex undertaking. Boswell, alas, was too ill at that point to respond to the review of his work. A Groom of One's Own?
We find ourselves, all of us, in a historical crisis of gender. It has produced highly charged arguments over "Amendment 2" to the constitution of Colorado, and over the various legal actions that have stemmed from that controversial initiative. In Ontario, Canada, it has produced acerbic debate and the defeat of a legislative bill that would have recognized same-sex unions as "marital" in nature, and would have granted them comparable rights and duties. No small part of the disputation is about definitions-What is a family? What is a marriage?-and about the social and political consequences of these definitions.
The relationship of historians and their work to this crisis is fraught and dangerous. The stakes are high. And so the appearance of a large book by a well-known historian from Yale University on what are, he says, historical precedents for homosexual marriages in Christian society and their official recognition by the Christian church, is bound to find a large readership and to stoke a vigorous debate. The publisher's announcement excitedly warns that the work is "bound to be as controversial as the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls." For John Boswell claims to have discovered a series of medieval manuscripts that record Christian church ceremonials for creating and blessing "same-sex unions"-for what were, in effect, marriages between men.
Apart from a foray into the problem of abandoned infants in ancient and early-modern European society, Boswell is best known for his investigation of the problematic relations between male homosexuals and the Christian church. His Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century
, which appeared in 1980, was a learned and groundbreaking investigation of a subject that the author rightly categorized as "taboo." More than twelve years in the researching and writing, his new book on same-sex unions is similarly intended to reshape our interpretations of the past and our practices in the present.
Boswell attempts to demonstrate that "gay marriage ceremonies" were an accepted part of the early Christian church, and that the rituals that formalized such marriages were only later deliberately and consciously effaced by the church. He laudably provides the reader with transcriptions of the documents in the original Greek, along with his own English translations of them. No less laudably, he guides the reader through interpretations of his material that differ from his own.
Since the material that Boswell has uncovered is unfamiliar and impressive and controversial, it is perhaps best to give the reader some sense of it-his own English version of the text of one of these ceremonies. What follows is from an eleventh-century Greek manuscript labeled Grottaferrata G.B.), and I have inserted some of the significant original Greek words in transcription.
Office for Same-Sex Union
[Akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin
I. The priest shall place the holy Gospel on the Gospel stand and they that are to be joined together place their right hands on it, holding lighted candles in their left hands. Then shall the priest cense them and say the following:
In peace we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For heavenly peace, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For the peace of the entire world, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
For this holy place, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That these thy servants, N. and N., be sanctified with thy spiritual benediction, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That their love [agape
] abide without offense or scandal all the days of their lives, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That they be granted all things needed for salvation and godly enjoyment of life everlasting, we beseech Thee, O Lord.
That the Lord God grant unto them unashamed faithfulness [pistis] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos
], we beseech Thee, O Lord. . . .
Have mercy on us, O God. "Lord, have mercy" shall be said three times.
III. The priest shall say:
Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and loving, who didst establish humankind after thine image and likeness, who didst deem it meet that thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew be united, bound one unto the other not by nature but by faith and the spirit. As Thou didst find thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united together [adelphoi genesthai
], bless also these thy servants, N. and N., joined together not by the bond of nature but by faith and in the mode of the spirit [ou desmoumenous desmi physeis alla pisteis kai pneumatikos tropi
], granting unto them peace [eirene]
and love [agape
] and oneness of mind. Cleanse from their hearts every stain and impurity and vouchsafe unto them to love one another [to agapan allelous
] without hatred and without scandal all the days of their lives, with the aid of the Mother of God and all thy saints, forasmuch as all glory is thine.
Another Prayer for Same-Sex Union
O Lord Our God, who didst grant unto us all those things necessary for salvation and didst bid us to love one another and to forgive each other our failings, bless and consecrate, kind Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of the spirit [tous pneumatike agape heautous agapesantas
] and have come into this thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated. Grant unto them unashamed fidelity [pistis
] and sincere love [agape anhypokritos
], and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples and apostles thy peace and love, bestow them also on these, O Christ our God, affording to them all those things needed for salvation and life eternal. For Thou art the light and the truth and thine is the glory.
V. Then shall they kiss the holy Gospel and the priest and one another, and conclude.
It is this ceremonial, and blessings like these, that Boswell claims to be part of a lost, or deliberately suppressed, tradition of church-legitimized same-sex marriages between men.
Boswell's argument stands or falls on his interpretation of a series of documents relating to a singular ritual practiced in the Christian church during antiquity and the high middle ages, principally in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. The bonds between men that are confirmed in these church rituals are cautiously (and a little coyly) labeled by him as "same-sex unions." For his arguments to have the force that he wishes them to have, however, the words "same-sex" and "union" must be construed to mean "male homosexual" and "marriage." If they signify other sorts of associations that happened to be same-sex in gender, or unions that were meant for purposes other than marriage or a permanent affective union, then his claims fail.
For this reason, the narrative chapters of his book are ancillary, in that they digress on other aspects of the general problems of marriage and family formation in a way that is designed to support Boswell's claims about the supposed same-sex marriage rituals. His larger investigation of the nature of "heterosexual" marriage and love, and their attendant vocabulary in the Greco-Roman world, is undertaken to demonstrate that his interpretation of the "same-sex union" rituals is the most probable one.
Given the centrality of Boswell's "new" evidence, therefore, it is best to begin by describing his documents and their import. These documents are liturgies for an ecclesiastical ritual called adelphopoiesis
or, in simple English, the "creation of a brother." Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for marriage ceremonies. Boswell's translation of their titles (akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin
and parallels) as "The Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men" or "Office for Same-Sex Union" is inaccurate. In the original, the titles say no such thing. And this sort of tendentious translation of the documents is found, alas, throughout the book. Thus the Greek words that Boswell translates as "be united together" in the third section of the document quoted above are, in fact, rather ordinary words that mean "become brothers" (adelphoi genesthai
); and when they are translated in this more straightforward manner, they impart a quite different sense to the reader.
Excerpted from Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con by Andrew Sullivan. Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.