The insulting ignorance and intellectual laziness of many of those campaigning for marriage equality when speaking of their own cause is baffling. Surely after all these years of campaigning against discrimination people would have made it their business to learn the history of the institution that they’re fighting for. Instead, the argument of those who oppose equality that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman” is validated because of pure laziness.
If I didn’t know any better my knowledge of marriage would be restricted the idea of it to it being between a man and a woman, originally being like a business contract in which the woman is property to be traded, and that we are now fighting for equality of marriage. Or, as conservatives would say, we are now fighting for privileges for gays, and a destruction of the definition and institution of marriage. Senator David Norris once commented on the Ancient Greek practice of relations between teenage boys and older male mentors, often involving sexual relations as well, for the purpose of education and the transition to manhood, also known as pederasty. If we are to look at history we can spread out our view and go further.
Throughout history many societies and cultures across the world have been much more tolerant and accepting of a variety of gender identities, sexes, and sexualities than we are today. In fact, art from as early as the Mesolithic period 12,000 years ago depicts homosexuality. The Native Americans are often referenced for their pre-colonisation acceptance of Two Spirit and Third Sex individuals, allowing them the choice to identify how they felt. There are many examples of art from ancient China, Japan and Africa that depict homosexuality and transsexual people, suggesting a cultural acceptance of these identities. Ancient Assyrian art of the Middle East also displays similar things, and it was once believed that same-sex relations were beneficial and brought good fortune. In Persia and the world of pre-modern Islam homosexuality featured openly in poetry and, in areas where homosexual practices survived openly into the modern world, was documented by the likes of writers André Gide and Richard Francis Burton. Similar occurrences have also been documented in parts of Africa, such as Lesotho where Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe recorded the existence of long-term sexual relationships between women. Even the famed Kamasutra openly explored same-sex relationships, emotions and sexuality. An area of particular interest on this front has been the Siwa Oasis Egypt in which homosexuality and what were essentially marriages between men were prevalent for centuries, if not millennia, and the practice only died out following the Second World War. It was practiced so openly, in fact, that Count Byron de Prorok once compared it to Sodom, the city destroyed by god for the “immoral” practices of its inhabitants. These relationships have been reported to have held greater significance than those between men and women. However, it isn’t just homosexuality and a few examples of relationships between people of the same sex that have been recorded throughout history, but marriage itself.
Again we can look at Ancient Greece to see the history of marriage as it really was. Greek history is full of stories of love and lust between both the opposite sex and the same sex. Once upon a time, like in Siwa Oasis, relationships between men were held in higher regard than those between a man and a woman, with one saying that “Women are for business, boys are for pleasure.” However, this may also show misogyny as well as acceptance of homosexuality. These days we hear much about how gays only lust, not love, but in Ancient Greek this was reversed.
A similar history can be found in the world of Ancient Rome with all emperors other than Claudius taking male lovers, and Emperor Hadrian, namesake of Hadrian’s Wall, having a relationship with his male lover Antonius. During this era there were no laws or social values aimed at homosexuality until the reign of the Christian emperors such as Justinian in the 6th century AD who used homosexuals as scapegoats for everything from earthquakes to plagues to famine. Transsexuality was also accepted to a certain extent in this era; the cult of Cybele is a decent example of this.
In the 7th century BC long term marriage-like unions between male lovers were documented in Greece alongside those between men and women. In the 4th century BC Plato and other Greek philosophers made the argument that love between two males is the highest form of love, and that love for women is simply lust (an argument often made in a reversed form against homosexual couples). In the 1st century AD Roman emperor Nero married two men in legal ceremonies identical to those of his wives, and emperor Elagabalus also married his male lover in the 3rd century. In Roman history it was not until the first Christian emperor, Phillip the Arab, in the 3rd century AD that there was a real attempt to criminalise aspects homosexuality, followed by further discrimination by the Councils of Elvera and Ancyra and the following Christian emperors in the 4th century.
It was not really until the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam gained a hold in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe that homosexuality was outlawed and attitudes of society towards same-sex relationships became negative. Although homosexuality remained a theme in poetry, even for poets within the Catholic Church, the attitudes of society changed drastically. Homophobia has largely been a product of the Abrahamic world. Not only does marriage predate Christianity and its fellow religions, but so does same-sex marriage, and so these religions and their followers cannot claim a monopoly on the practice and definition of marriage, nor can they dictate to us what we can do in this sense.
This also means that using the phrase “this is the 21st century” in debates on same-sex marriage is both redundant and insulting in its ignorance. It simply isn’t relevant what century we are in because we are essentially attempting to return to the more tolerant views of sexuality from the pre-Christian era. The bigotry and persecution of the last millennia and a half has been at the hands of religious zealots and down to their influence on society. Using this argument when they try to hold our society down in their world of intolerance only serves to validate their claim that marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and this is a disservice to this movement.