The topic of LGBTQ identities, relationships, and weddings is a major hot button “issue” in the U.S. today. As queerness takes front and center for Pride Month in June, many non-queer people are left asking, “Gay marriage is legal now. What’s the big deal?”
While same-sex marriage was officially legalized for the entire U.S. in June 2015, the history of queer relationships and weddings reaches back to long before that monumental Supreme Court decision — and queer couples still face many obstacles and challenges that straight people simply don’t.
This one’s going to be a long ride. Buckle up.
an overview of the queer world
The history of queer couples in both global and U.S. records can sometimes be difficult to interpret. The concept and specific words for sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, etc.) didn’t exist until recent decades, and gender was approached in a different way culturally and socially. For most of history, the social and personal approach to relationships were both focused more on individual roles in the relationship and society rather than on the object of a person’s sexual or romantic desire.
In some cultures, like Greco-Roman times, gender was in many relationships a non-issue. We have definitive evidence of marriages between men of high socioeconomic status and other males. Many historical records from various countries, cultures, and time periods include recognized romantic relationships resembling marriage of same-sex couples who lived together, and couples who presented as different genders while being legally recognized as the same sex.
In other cultures, like 1700s U.S.A., any same-sex activity was considered taboo, offensive, a private personal matter, or “dirty,” and was therefore masked or censored from historical record. In many contexts and time periods, such as medieval Europe, romantic and marital relationships were also viewed as strictly separate. Same-sex marriage was not an option in these cultures, while same-sex lovers and relationships were openly recognized (even by Shakespeare!)
Many cultures seen in hindsight as being horrified or disgusted by same-sex relationships would actually not have cared at all, as long as social roles and expectations were honored. Even in more Puritanical time periods, modern historians strongly believe certain political figures may have been gay or bisexual. Modern archaeologists have also uncovered evidence that some historical people were transgender or intersex (or simply a different gender than previously assumed).
queerness in United States history
(The following information is mostly summarized and adapted from GSAFE’s Timeline of LGBT History in the United States, with some details added from further personal research. For more on queerness in Native American communities, see Pruden and Edmo’s Two-Spirit presentation and this Washington Post article.)
The strict religious structure of the early American settlements and towns shadows much of early queer U.S. history. In the 1600s and 1700s, same-sex sexual acts and dressing as a different gender than expected met punishments ranging from fines and public humiliation to execution. French and Spanish colonists also recorded observations of transgender or two-spirit people and same-sex relationships in Native American society.
Queer identities and relationships began to emerge more visibly in the 1800s. Several Native American tribes were further observed by colonists to live in same-sex relationships and, in at least one case, same-sex polygamous relationships. At least 400 women passing as men served in the Civil War, with some getting involved with each other. Two prominent Southern men wrote about their erotic history with each other, and two African-American women in the North wrote love letters to each other. An actress known for playing male roles and romancing women lived with a female sculptor until her death.
Several gay and lesbian writers and poets published material celebrating same-sex love and romance. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published with homoerotic passages included. Oscar Wilde emerged. Many relationships passing as straight were revealed, after death or arrest, to be same-sex unions.
Puritanical legal measures began to return in the 1900s, attacking LGBTQ communities with a vengeance. U.S. immigration instated a law banning “abnormal sexual instincts.” New York State declared performances of plays portraying “sex perversion” misdemeanors. An African-American woman in Harlem was arrested for hosting a lesbian house party. A lesbian Polish-Jewish immigrant was arrested and deported for “disorderly conduct” after opening a lesbian tea house and writing an “obscene” book, Lesbian Love.
The military tightened recruit screening to exclude both lesbians and gay men from service. Hollywood instated the Hayes Code, forbidding any portrayal or mention of “sex perversion” on screen. In the 40s and 50s, the State Department conducted anti-queer witch hunts, firing over 1,200 men and women suspected of homosexuality. The federal employment of “homosexuals” was officially banned in 1953, with many state and local governments following suit. The first national LGBTQ publication, established in 1953, was banned from U.S. mail distribution by the Supreme Court in 1958. Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took an anti-homosexual stance.
the queer rights movement
The 1950s and 1960s also saw the emergence of LGBTQ rights in America. A homosexuality tolerance group was founded in L.A. and the first national lesbian rights group began in San Francisco, with an East Coast chapter opened three years later. Queer books became bestsellers and were shared in public readings. The first public sex reassignment surgery, for Christine Jorgensen, gave transgender people visibility. Hollywood altered the Hayes Code to allow some depictions of queer people.
In 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize same-sex activity between consenting adults. America’s first gay bookstore opened, and the first officially recognized queer college campus group was established. The first public protest of government anti-queer discrimination took place in 1965.
Come back on Thursday for part two, when I’ll share queer history from 1969 to today and discuss why all of this is so important.