Celebrating Marriage Equality

BY JASON BAUMANN, Coordinator of Collection Assessment, Humanities, and LGBT Collections at The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library honored the Supreme Court's historic decision on same-sex marriage Friday with a new display featuring key items from its renowned collections chronicling LGBT relationships and the fight for marriage equality."From the Collections: Celebrating Marriage Equality" is now on view in Astor Hall at The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. NYPL holds one of the preeminent collections of LGBT material with at least 100,000 volumes and over 300 archival collections from individuals and activist organizations containing hundreds of thousands of letters, manuscripts, photographs, posters, and other items--as well as numerous audio/visual materials.

As a librarian at The New York Public Library, I always see my role as pulling things from our archives that challenge ideas of a past that we have inherited, materials that can open political and personal imaginations. The Library's collections of LGBT history never fail to surprise and enlighten me. For instance, I recently encountered the biography of James Allen, who was born a woman but lived as a man and was fairly happily married to a woman for 21 years in early 19th-century England.

Authentic Narrative of the Extraordinary Career of James Allen, the Female Husband...
London: Published by I. S. Thomas ..., 1829.
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. The New York Public Library.

I couldn't have imagined Allen's daring. In the Authentic Narrative of the Extraordinary Career of James Allen, the Female Husband, Allen's story is told with extraordinary sympathy, and Allen is depicted as devoted, strong, committed, and courageous in pursuing love and marriage against all odds. I didn't know growing up that this was a historical possibility, which may be the reason I never thought I would get married. Ever. But it isn't as if I didn't have contemporary examples of gay, lesbian, and transgender marriages growing up. Close friends of my parents, a lesbian couple, held their own commitment ceremony when I was a kid. I remember the large house lent for the ceremony and reception, the scattered flower arrangements that had been gathered from the garden, the earthy hippie aura of the minister, the elegant but comfortable clothes they wore, and their hand-written vows. I think one wore a purple dress and the other a suit with a bow tie. I distinctly remember the applause when they kissed. But despite their immense sincerity and the palpable love and good wishes of everyone there, all of us, even my 12-year-old self knew that few outside that room would honor the dignity of their marriage: not the police, the hospitals, the courts, or the schools where they sent their children. Their marriage was, in the end, a private affair recognized only by those who loved them, despite the home they shared, the children they raised together, and their many quarrels and reconciliations over the years.

Marriage equality may be shocking to some people who are opposed to it. I think it's just as shocking to those in favor who never imagined it could actually happen. Thirty years ago who would have thought that LGBT marriage equality could be a real goal? Could be legal in over 30 states? Could be considered again by the U.S. Supreme Court? Sometimes I feel like I am living in the future!

As George Chauncey argued in his book Why Marriage?: The History Shaping Today's Debate Over Gay Equality, marriage equality did not become a major issue for LGBT politics until the 1990s. Chauncey argues that marriage became a political focus then as increasing numbers of LGBT couples faced challenges when living openly as partners and raising children, and due to the horrific difficulties faced by those caring for their lovers dying of AIDS without legal recognition and support for their relationships.

Decades before, the political focus of the homophile movement was centered on battling other forms of discrimination, such as police entrapment and the right to employment. Back issues of pioneering homophile political magazines of the 1950s and 1960s like One and the Ladder rarely discussed homosexual marriage, and when they did, it was framed as the dilemma of making a heterosexual marriage work when one partner is homosexual.

The next generation of activists, the gay liberation and radical lesbian activists of the 1970s, were more vocal about marriage, often opposed to it and its traditional conceptions of family, which they considered to be inextricably entwined with homophobia and sexism. These activists were inspired by Marxism and radical feminism to question all societal mores and traditions. Take this example from the Gay Liberation Front's "Draft Platform" from 1970:

We oppose the family and support the living collective. The family oppresses male and female homosexuals, oppresses all women, and generally oppresses all people since it supports capitalism by dividing people from one another. The collective would allow child rearing by both sexes, and allow homosexuals to be free to raise children, aiding break down of gender identification.

However, looking through the Library's archives of LGBT history over the past month in anticipation of the Supreme Court's ruling, I found a small but strong current in favor of legal marriage as both a political and personal goal. These exceptions to the general history seem especially prescient given current advances in marriage equality.

 Kay Tobin Lahusen. Jack Baker and Michael McConnell. 
Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen Gay History Papers and Photographs.
Manuscripts & Archives Division. The New York Public Library.

In the early 1970s Jack Baker and Michael McConnell became the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license and then marry in the United States. The couple had the same instinct to challenge social barriers as their peers did, but they pursued different ends. Their radical act went against the grain of both societal prejudices and main currents of gay liberation, but their insistence on marrying also helped stretch the possibilities of what LGBT lives could be.

But we can look further back in the homophile movement for other exceptional cases that reflect the importance of marriage equality. In the special "Let's Push for Homophile Marriage" issue of One in June 1963, Randy Lloyd published a paean to marriage that is half practical tips on making long-term relationships work ("Expect to adjust. If your partner likes things that you think are 'weird', like birdwatching, grunion running, or sex in the mornings, well, at least give it a fling.") and half manifesto:

There are many homosexuals, who neither desire nor are suited for homophile marriage, that ridicule what they call the "heterosexual" institution of marriage. This is only clever twisting. Marriage is no more a strictly heterosexual social custom than are the social customs of birthday celebrations, funerals, house-warmings, or, for that matter, sleeping, eating, and the like. I participate in those, not because they are heterosexual or homosexual things, but because I am a human being. Being homosexual does not put one out of the human race. I am a human being, male and married to another male; not because I am aping heterosexuals, but because I have discovered that that is by far the most enjoyable way of life for me.

Lloyd's article is particularly prophetic in his insistence that "homophile" marriage will eventually be the defining issue in LGBT political struggles -- a prediction that seems quite accurate today.

As far back as 19th-century America there are examples of same-sex marriages. In her fascinating recent book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, Rachel Hope Cleves explores the same-sex marriage of William Cullen Bryant's aunt Charity Bryant and her partner Sylvia Drake. They are a remarkable case of an openly acknowledged long-term same-sex relationship in a time when we might think that would be impossible. In his 1850 book Letters of a Traveller, or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America, Bryant wrote of them:

I passed a few days in the valley of one of those streams of northern Vermont, which find their way into Champlain. If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other's occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other's relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and 'took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them...

Reading about Chastity and Sylvia widens the world of possibilities for LGBT relationships, knowing that such things were and are possible. How many more James Allens, Chastity Bryants, and Randy Lloyds were there that were not recorded for history? Their exceptional example defies our general preconceptions of the history of same-sex marriages. With all the concrete issues to be addressed by the Supreme Court's decision and the incredible impact that a decision in favor of marriage equality will make in LGBT lives, we shouldn't forget the less palpable issues at stake. A decision in favor of marriage equality will open up new worlds, new possibilities for relationships. It will expand the kinds of lives and loves that young queers can imagine. And who knows what will be imagined next?