A History of Lesbian Unions

Linda and Kathryn Huxtable's wedding
Read on March 14, 1995

(last updated 10 October 1996ce)

Passionate love between women has always existed. In all parts of the world, through all periods of history, women have found ways to be together. Many have even found ways to join with each other as life partners. These lesbian partnerships have taken diverse forms, each a response to the era and culture from which it arose.

In traditional Native American cultures, the truest and highest form of power was the power of the Spirit world, the guiding force for all creation. Lesbianism was seen as a life choice that one made in order to live in accordance with Spirit. There existed a basic understanding that sexual identity was a response to Spiritual guidance and was inseparable from one's path to wholeness. Accounts of marriages between women exist for eleven Native American tribes.

Tribal cultures other than Native American ones have also acknowledged the bonds between women. Recorded evidence of woman-marriage exists for fourteen African tribes, and in some of those tribes was relatively common. There are undoubtedly countless other tribal cultures which have accepted and even honored lesbian existence, but have left no written record.

The poet Sappho lived in the sixth century B.C., a time when a tradition rich with women's spirit and vision was still vibrant and alive. Through the surviving fragments of Sappho's poems, we get glimpses of a lesbian life both sensual and holy, a life among a community of women dedicated to the cultivation of beauty, the invocation of gods and goddesses and the love of one another. It is the blending of passion and spirituality, beyond all else, that speaks to us from Sappho's works. There exist none of the divisions which have since been imposed: no division between the sexual and the holy, no division between daily life and ceremonial rite, no division between women's bonds and goddesses' blessings.

From the period of Egyptian rule through the early Roman Empire, there are a number of references to gay and lesbian marriages, such as that between Berenice, the Queen of Egypt, and her lover Mesopotamia. In the Dialogues of the Courtesans, one of the characters describes a woman from Lesbos who is married to a woman from Corinth. It appears that the status of lesbians in many other cultures was similar to that in Greece and early Rome. Lesbianism was acknowledged in ancient China, and the Arabic tradition acknowledged that lesbianism was bound to occur among the wives in a harem. Several ancient pre-Islamic poems spoke positively about an Arab woman named Hind who fell in love with the wife of the king of Hira. And Judaic tradition has left us with "The Book of Ruth," which includes one of the most moving expressions of love ever written, an example of the ways women have found of being together and of loving each other.

A fascination with love, in all its forms, began to spread throughout Western Europe during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The troubadours glorified relationships based on amor, individual romantic love, a concept which had been absent from society for so long that it was seen as the troubadours' invention. By the twelfth century, romantic love had become the obsession within the Holy Roman Empire, and given a simultaneous increase of individual freedom, gay and lesbian love was proclaimed as passionately as heterosexual love.

The history of women-loving-women encompasses several distinct currents of experience, each reflecting a unique aspect of female bonding. One of these was the tradition of "romantic friendships."

Originating in the revival of platonic love during the Renaissance, the tradition of passionate love between female friends reached its height in eighteenth-century England and France. These romantic friendships had all the elements of ardent love affairs. Women wrote letters declaring their undying and eternal love for each other, and sent each other love poems, describing in evocative detail the depth and fire of their longing. Women could publicly kiss, embrace, walk hand in hand, and declare each other the center of their emotional lives. From the Renaissance through the late nineteenth century, women had society's sanction to give voice to their passionate love for other women.

Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper were romantic friends who began a life-long partnership at the end of the nineteenth century. They published poetry under the name Michael Field: "My love and I took hands and swore/Against the world, to be/Poets and lovers evermore." For them, their love for each other and their poetry were inextricably linked. In reference to Robert and Elizabeth Browning, they once noted in their journal: "These two poets, man and wife, wrote alone; each wrote, but did not bless and quicken one another at their work; we are closer married."

During our own century, as lesbians have gained a growing sense of pride and entitlement, we have begun to insist on social and legal recognition of the significance of our unions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, lesbians began to test the limits of what the state would sanction as legal marriage. Although only Denmark legally recognizes any form of same-sex unions, the issue continues to be addressed both abroad and in the United States.

Lesbian ceremonies of commitment, holy unions, trysts, handfastings, and lesbian weddings have burst into visibility. Today, holy unions for same-sex couples are conducted by the Metropolitan Community Church, and by some clergy from United Methodist, Unitarian, and Episcopal congregations, as well as from Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and Quaker Meetings. Increasingly, lesbians are creating our own ceremonies, interweaving what is meaningful for us from various traditions with our own imaginings. Lesbians are manifesting our own loving and powerful visions of relationships, and creating out of our own hearts and minds the ceremonies to acknowledge and celebrate our relationships.

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Kathryn Huxtable
Senior Programmer/Consultant
Academic Computing Services, The University of Kansas
E-mail: k-huxtable@ukans.edu
WWW: http://www.ukans.edu/home/k-huxtable/