Before and After Marriage Equality

—Thomas A. Foster

Marriage equality may be a modern concept but same-gender love, of course, is no recent phenomenon. Writing in 1779, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury whose face now adorns the ten dollar bill, wrote to John Laurens “I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you.” Such heartfelt expressions of love between intimates of the same gender were not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some early Americans also desired to spend their lives with members of the same gender. In my book, Long Before Stonewall, we look at Sarah Pierce, the founder of the Litchfield Female Academy—the first institution of higher learning for women in the country—who envisioned a life with Abigail Smith. With Abigail and her sister one night in 1792, when the three were drawing pictures of their future houses, Sarah chose instead to write a poem about her life with Abigail. She enjoyed the lesbian poetry of English Romantic poet Anna Seward, and, as Lisa L. Moore explains, her poem was rich with erotic imagery and poignantly ended with the two buried next to one another, together for eternity. Abigail went on to marry but Sarah never did.

Until quite recently, those who loved members of the same gender expressed their love in the terms that were appropriate for their time, as enduring friendships, or they remained silent and in secret about it. Those who established households together did so discreetly if at all. Many faced isolation while others paid a price for visibility.

History tells us that marriage equality for gays and lesbians will one day be a reality in the U.S. It’s true that, at the state level, anti-equality activists have won. In recent years, thirty states passed constitutional amendments while another dozen have statutes banning marriage equality. A minority of the fifty states—just six—have endorsed marriage equality. But federal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages will eventually come—and will need to come–from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Just less than a decade ago, President George W. Bush lent his support to an amendment to the United States Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The recent Obama administration decision to no longer enforce the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a legislation which also defined marriage as an act between a man and a woman, and the much-talked about interview in which President Obama voiced his personal support for marriage equality, have evidenced the importance of the upcoming presidential election. With the announcement regarding DOMA, the Obama administration has potentially moved the issue in the Supreme Court’s direction.

California’s ban on marriage equality, Prop 8, could also be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to revisit the case, setting the stage for a Supreme Court hearing. No one can say for certain when and how marriage equality will be won but future generations of Americans will one day enjoy the rights currently exercised in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden.  We were also way behind the rest of the world in abolishing slavery and in granting women the right to vote, so marriage equality is in good company in terms of delayed justice issues in this country.

Gaining marriage equality will be an historic victory but it will not be a simple one. It will also usher in the predictable wave of violent backlash and political and culture wars that gays and lesbians have sadly come to expect to pay for every victory. And it will not mark a turning point in same-gender relationships. Those have been occurring without legal or cultural sanction as the LGBTQ communities have never needed permission to forge their own families.

Thomas A. Foster is Chair of the Department of History at DePaul University. He is the editor of New Men: Manliness in Early America (NYU Press 2011) and Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (NYU Press 2007).

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