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Why history says gay people can’t marry…nor can anyone else*

(*unless they have kids of their own)

By Helen Berry


I happened to be in New York at the end of June this year when the State legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act to legalise same-sex marriage. By coincidence, it was Gay Pride weekend, and a million people waved rainbow flags in the streets of Manhattan, celebrating this landmark ruling in the campaign for gay rights, and I was one of them.

What struck me as a visitor from the UK – where civil partnerships for same-sex couples have been legal since 2004 – was the way in which gay marriage is still such a divisive issue in American politics. The subject continues to divide the nation, and has been revived, rather than resolved, by ongoing state-by-state rulings, Supreme Court challenges, and high-octane political rhetoric.

To cite just one recent example, Proposition 8 (the “California Marriage Protection Act”) was an amendment to the California constitution passed in November 2008 defending heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate form of wedding. The amendment stated that “gays…do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone else”. Following fierce and costly litigation suits filed for and against Proposition 8, the amendment was overturned in August 2010 in a United States District Court. Appeals are now pending. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in federal law, following the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) passed by the United States Congress, which limits the definition of marriage to “a legal union of one man and one woman”. Those organizations which represent the interests of the evangelical Christian right, a powerful and wealthy lobbying force in the United States, stress the scriptural precedent for heterosexual marriage, encapsulated in the tiresome slogan “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. This same slogan is now parroted by bigots in Uganda who, with financial support from American evangelical missionaries, have sought to introduce the death penalty for homosexuals. Both scripture and historical precedent are used to argue that gay people cannot marry a) because God wants it that way, and b) because historically it’s always been that way. The religious right proposes that gay people can’t be allowed to marry on the grounds that marriage is, and has always been, for the purpose of procreation. As a historian, it’s this assumption that I’ve had cause to examine in greater depth through research that I’ve been pursuing over the past five years for my new book, The Castrato and His Wife.

Few Christians today, even fundamentalist ones, would go so far as to argue that all couples who can’t have children ought not to be allowed to marry, or to continue their marriage if a problem with fertility arises, yet this was the commonly-held view of the Catholic church and wider society throughout Christendom before the sixteenth-century Reformation. Men who married knowing that they could not consummate their union were condemned. Based upon a principle established in Roman law, male impotence was one of the few grounds upon which a wife could secure an annulment of marriage (grounds which still hold today for the dissolution of marriage via modern divorce courts). Male impotence is notoriously difficult to prove, however, and remains culturally shameful to admit. In medieval times, the solution offered by church courts was to send a gang of experienced midwives to see whether the husband’s penis would respond to manual stimulation.

Even after the Reformation, Protestants remained uncertain as to the status of childless marriages. The biology of human reproduction was poorly understood, and so (unsurprisingly) failure to conceive was usually blamed upon the female partner for her excessive “coldness”, assumed aversion to sex, or just plain bad temper. Post-menopausal women were given some consideration – they could legitimately marry in the Church of England using a new form of service written especially for older couples. Where the bride was of mature age, the Book of Common Prayer emphasised that marriage could be for the mutual help, comfort and society of both parties, and tactfully dropped any reference to the “blessing of children”. Globally, the social acceptance of childless marriages has varied enormously according to shifting religious attitudes, customs, and socio-economic circumstances. In early colonial America, for example, great social stigma could be suffered by childless couples in white settler communities where raising the next generation was a survival imperative.

Portrait of Tenducci by Thomas Gainsborough

In The Castrato and His Wife, the couple at the centre of the book, the famous opera singer and castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, and his sixteen-year old Irish bride Dorothea Maunsell, were lawfully wed by the Church of Ireland. When she tired of her famous husband, however, Dorothea used the excuse that he couldn’t father children (which surely must have been obvious to her from the outset) to her own ends. She eventually secured an annulment of her first marriage so that she could go off with another man. The church courts colluded in this circus (which involved no fewer than four wedding ceremonies, of varying degrees of dubiousness). The judge eventually gave legitimacy with retrospective force to Dorothea’s second choice of husband, an “intact” man who had already proven his ability to father her children – albeit while she was still married to Tenducci. A “normal” heterosexual male in all other respects, Tenducci – in common with all other men who were unwilling or unable to father children – was deemed to have no right to marry.

So, given this long standing historical precedent throughout the Christian West, ought all childless couples – of same or opposite sex – to be refused legal recognition of their marriages? This is the logical extension of the argument that gay people should be debarred from marrying since a gay couple cannot produce their own biological offspring without assistance. The baying voices of those who call for continued “protection” of “traditional” family values are, however, oddly silent on this question.

Helen Berry is Reader in Early Modern History at Newcastle University and author of The Castrato and his Wife. Read her article on royal weddings here.

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Recent Comments

  1. Scott F

    Those of us who adopt should be similarly denied marriage? Chances are we are all gay anyway, I suppose…

  2. mollymooly

    Catholics have the further wrinkle of the “Josephite marriage”, since St Joseph was married to the Virgin Mary but never had sex with her.

  3. David in Houston

    Your last paragraph regarding the “silence” pertaining to non-procreating (childless) couples from the anti-marriage equality crowd was actually ineptly answered by the renown author of The Manhattan Declaration and Founding Chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, Robert George. He wrote a 40-page diatribe entitled What is Marriage? Basically, as long as the man can put his “member” into a female, then by-golly that’s good enough for George! It doesn’t really matter if they can procreate or not, it all comes down to plumbing. As for those that are incapable of procreating, such as senior citizens or infertile couples? Well, they make a good example of what “married couples” are suppose to look like. (Because otherwise teenagers wouldn’t have a clue what a married couple is.) So they all get a “free pass” to get married. Aren’t arbitrary rules fun? It must be a coincidence that all those free passes are given out to only straight people.

  4. drdanfee

    Dear Ms. Berry, thanks lots for adding in some real, factual history to the polarized, argumentative streams of the current controversy. The silence from the USA Christian right about straight couples who cannot make babies for various/sundry reasons is deliberate, not accidental. Their framework is categorically, straights only. Just where they actually store/hide their animus towards people who are not straight will depend on a mix of personality, situation, available hiding places – inner and/or outer? Arguing back rationally from history and facts reframes their claims, and that in itself is a deeply useful response so far as I can tell. Again, thanks, and bravo. drdanfee / USA / Berkeley

  5. drdanfee

    Please allow me one more comment? If the gaps in rational weighing of married straights are vivid and striking, then a corollary distance must also be noted in the USA Christian right’s silence about the care/well-being of all the children being raised by LGB parents. We usually hear, either a claim that all LGB parenting is uniformly awful, dangerous, (and sometimes, hints of dirty?), or a wide gapped silence about why the well-being of children in committed couple families does not register on the civil, legal, and/or religious radar that is supposed to be … ALL … about … children. As Lewis Carroll has Alice say, “…curioser, and curioser”.
    drdanfee / USA / Berkeley

  6. ETerry

    The history is interesting, but honestly, in this day and age, who gives a rat’s behind about anything a church, Christian or otherwise, has to say about anything? Their superstitious positions are irrelevant to the rational discussion of any topic.

  7. CN

    @ETerry
    Because in the USA, what the church(es) say is still considered uber important, whether it objectively is important or not…Christian groups have a lot of power over there. So it does matter. I think it probably matters to all the LGBT Christians too..

  8. Gay Book

    Are you trying to say that we get married to have kids? What about love? you can ask this question to even a straight people; I’m sure they will contradict from you view.

  9. [...] history says gay people can’t marry…nor can anyone else* permalink buy this book   Posted on Monday, August 8th, 2011 at 8:33 [...]

  10. [...] Why history says gay people can’t marry … nor can anyone else*. (Oxford University Press) [...]

  11. CN

    @Gay Book I am not sure if you have understood the point of the article. Dr Berry is in fact pro gay marriage and is making the point that, until relatively recently, definitions of marriage would have even excluded many ‘straight’ couples – yet another reason to redefine marriage!

  12. [...] and His Wife (a book about famous opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci), writing for the Oxford University Press blog. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in [...]

  13. Oscar Blanco

    First of all, thank you Ms. Berry for a great article. I believe the issue might be a semantical one. Many Americans view the term “marriage” as a religious term, not as a secular law term. If this was the case, if the word “marriage” was indeed a religious term, then, it could be claimed that it could not be used even in secular law. For instance, the law cannot use the term Yahweh or God outside any religious context without violating an almost obvious philosophical copyright. The question is: Can religion claim the word “marriage” for its exclusive use? Uncovering the answer would require research and historians doing good work to better understand the etymology and overall history of the word. But, what is more important would be the consequences of closely analyzing and faithfully following this historical analysis. If indeed marriage is a religious term, then, the law would have not jurisdiction is confirming any kind of “marriage.” The law would be limited to making legal unions and could not, or ought, recognize anything else. All marriages under the law and all the benefits that this one offers would be considered a legal contract between two parties. So, the gay community would not get their “marriage” word, but would get equality. Conversely, if the term cannot be claimed as a religious one then there is no reason to limit marriage to only a man and a woman. In conclusion, it just seems to me that the word “marriage” is carrying a context- a religious one -which refers, accurately or not, to a tradition and to religious tenets. If the term “marriage” is claimed by religion then only inside a church can marriage can be confirmed, if not, then all lawful marriages are to be renamed to social unions with equal rights across the board. Either way gays should get equal rights.

  14. [...] now available in paperback(2012). If you liked this, try Helen Berry’s OUPblog articles on why history says gay people can’t marry and an analysis of Royal [...]

  15. [...] University Press blog – Why History Says Gay People Can’t Marry: Nor Can Anyone Else* *(unless they have kids of their own) This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

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