The History of Lesbian Unions

There are many words used to describe the choice we as lesbians make to join our lives together; union, commitment ceremony, holy unions, trysts, hand-fasting, marriage, and more. No matter what words are used, the meaning and symbolism is the same. There is a desire to make a commitment to one another, to acknowledge the intent to join our lives together, often in the presence of friends and family.

As lesbians we don't have the long standing wedding traditions to fall back on as heterosexuals do. We must make our own traditions, sometimes combining elements from religious ceremonies, traditional heterosexual marriages, the glimpses of lesbian unions from centuries gone by.

But just what is that history from centuries gone by? How far back does the history of lesbian unions go? To find the answers to these questions, the history of lesbianism must also be examined, for you can't have one without the other.

Passionate love has always existed between women. However, the form it takes on is related both to the various cultures, and the times in which the love existed.

In the Native American culture, lesbianism was seen as, "A life choice made in order to live in accordance with the Spirit." Lesbian unions were considered sanctioned by the power of the Spirit.

The African culture also records evidence of lesbian unions among various tribes, with it in fact being acceptable, and rather common in certain tribes. A high economic status was necessary to pay the price for a bride, thereby making it a sign of prestige and power for a woman to marry another woman.

Perhaps some of the best glimpses into our history and lesbian love comes from the poet, Sappho, often called the "tenth muse", who lived in the sixth century B.C. Her poetry speaks of love between women, blessed by the gods and goddesses.

From the time of Egyptian rule to the early time of the Roman Empire, references have also been made to lesbian unions.

One of the most famous stories of love between women comes to us from the Book of Ruth, an often quoted story in heterosexual wedding ceremonies. After Naomi's son died, she told her daughter-in-law, Ruth, that she was returning to the land of her people, and urged Ruth to return to her own homeland. Ruth stated that she had no intention of doing that, declaring that she would rather turn her back on her homeland, people, and in fact her God, than lose Naomi. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I layed the groundwork of intolerance towards lesbians and gays, blaming the problems of his time on them. Homosexuality was punishable by death . By the ninth century conditions for lesbians and gays began to improve somewhat, with open declarations of gay and lesbian love. But, the pendulum of acceptance was soon to swing back towards intolerance. In 1260 The Orleans Legal School ordered women found guilty of lesbian acts to have their clitoris removed for their first offense. Second offenders were further mutilated, and third offenders were burned at the stake.

The eighteenth century found women of the Renaissance openly declaring their love for each other, often in a passionate manner. While much was written in the guise of romantic friendships, women were writing poetry and prose, exchanging letters, and writing in their journals of undying love for other women. One such journal, kept by Eleanor Butler tells of her life spent with Sarah Ponsonby. The women, after initial resistance by their families, bought a home together and remained together for the next 50 years.

By the late nineteenth century more women were able to avoid being separated from their love. With the advent of feminism, women were able to have some degree of economic independence from men. Economic independence brought Boston Marriages, with women who chose other women as life partners. 1886 found the Reverend Dr. E. H. Brooks presiding over the wedding ceremony of actress Annie Hindle and her dresser, Annie Ryan in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While these events would lead us to believe that lesbian unions, and lesbians in general were becoming acceptable, it unfortunately is not the case. In 1869 Carl von Westphal published a case history involving a lesbian who dressed as a man. He referred to her as a "congenital invert". With this, women's love for other women became viewed as a perversion. Just years earlier romantic friendship and love between women flourished and was encouraged. Curiously enough though, Queen Victoria refused to sign the Criminal Law Amendment in England, making public or private homosexual acts illegal, until the references to women were taken out. She stated that female homosexuality did not exist, and she refused to tarnish the honorable tradition of women's love.

The pendulum has continued to swing throughout the twentieth century. Much has occurred in our recent history that brings us to the point we are at today, with a growing number of lesbian unions.

In the early twentieth century the pendulum of history, which had previously swung against lesbians was once again moving towards acceptance. 1928 found The Well of Loneliness published by Radclyffe Hall. Hall, who had been with her lover Una Tourbridge since 1916, wanted to publish something that would encourage acceptance and understanding. While this book is somewhat of a lesbian classic today, and was initially well received, it soon became banned. But, even with the banning of this book, much had been accomplished. The press soon began to publish articles on lesbians written in a positive light, including a German magazine, Die Freudin (Girlfriend) which was openly discussing lesbian topics.

This acceptance was short lived though, with the Stalin regime carrying out mass arrest of lesbians and gays, and the Hitler regime banning gay press in Germany. By 1934 Nazis were rounding up gays and lesbians from Germany and German occupied countries, incarcerating them into concentration camps. There's no official count as to the number of gay and lesbians executed, but it's estimated that at least 50,000 officially were sent. Some guesses exceed 500,000.

Interestingly enough, conditions for lesbians in the US improved somewhat during this time. Lesbian bars began popping up, and with the economic independence of many women working war-time jobs lesbians began coming out. In 1947 Lisa Ben (Edythe Eyde's pseudonym for "lesbian") began publishing Vice Versa, the first US lesbian magazine.

Right around the same time as Vice Versa began publication, the pendulum swung back towards conservativism with the advent of the McCarthy era. Many women who had once worked, gaining economic independence and coming out of the closet quickly shut the door tightly, retreating into the safety of heterosexual marriages.

In 1955 Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple from San Francisco founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian membership organization. Two years later they began publishing a journal, The Ladder, which remained in print until 1972, providing the first national lesbian network. The same year that the Ladder began publication the Daughters of Bilitis sponsored a public discussion called, "Is Homophile Marriage Possible?" The answer, given by a psychotherapist who was the keynote speaker was, "Any marriage is possible between any two people if they want to grow up."

Any discussion of lesbian history would not be complete without mention of the famous Stonewall Riots. In the late 60s it was common for police to raid gay and lesbian bars. The gays and lesbians in the bars would go quietly with the police, later to be released from custody after harassment and humiliation. However, on the night of June 27, 1969 the gays and lesbians of the Stonewall Inn had had enough. As they were being taken into custody the drag queens began jeering at police, and one lesbian did something which no one had yet done; she resisted. This act started the crowd rioting, and they continued throughout the weekend. These riots are considered the start of the modern Gay and Lesbian Liberation.

Perhaps as part of this liberation lesbians began testing the state definitions of legal marriage. On June 12, 1970 Neva Joy Heckman and Judith Ann Belew exchanged rings and vows. Their marriage was presided over by the Reverend Troy Perry (founder of the MCC), who issued a church marriage certificate. He issued it based on a California statute that exempted common law couples from having to get a state marriage license. However, the legality of the marriage was struck down because the statute read, "man and wife".

Marjorie Ruth Jones and Tracy Knight of Kentucky took their case to court on the grounds that the Kentucky marriage statute did not specify marriage must be between a man and a woman. Their request was also struck down.

These cases, along with another by two gay men caught the media's attention. On July 16, 1970 the San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial on same sex marriage concluding that, "It would seem only in keeping with the times that the consideration be given to allowing the homosexual minority the same rights to this sense of fulfillment."

Today, in the early part of 1997, we're closely watching the case in Hawaii. While the Hawaiian Court upheld our right to marry, the State has filed an appeal. So don't go packing your suitcases just yet. The judge has stated that no same-gender marriage licenses can be issued until after the appeals process is complete.

In some countries same sex marriages have been legalized, while others are still fighting for their right to marry, often at great personal risk and cost.

While we may not be able to legally marry lesbians have been, and continue to join their lives together in both private and public ceremonies. During the October 10, 1987 March on Washington D.C., approximately 2,000 same sex couples (not all lesbian) joined their lives together in a mass wedding ceremony on the steps of the IRS building. Some ceremonies are held in churches or synagogues, while still others are held in homes or special places outdoors. Lesbian unions are as diverse as lesbian themselves, with ceremonies ranging from the very elaborate to the very simple. While we don't have the long standing wedding traditions of heterosexuals, we do have a history of lesbian unions that spans centuries.

With each lesbian union we are writing our own history, one that will perhaps be looked back, and learned from, upon by future generations. As the poet Sappho said, "You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us."

Copyright © 1997

[ Return to Main Page ]      [ Read More Musings ]