A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 12

Same-sex marriage in prehistoric societies

Although the truly nightmarish conditions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people that existed prior to the Stonewall Rebellion and the modern movement for equal rights and liberation have abated somewhat, the struggle is far from over. Equal rights under bourgeois law are being won through the unrelenting pressure of out-and-proud activists and the refusal of LGBTQ people in general to any longer maintain the centuries’ long tradition of secrecy and silence.

But being out, especially if you are a transgender person of color, can still mean sudden death or, if you defend yourself like CeCe McDonald, arrest and imprisonment. Full liberation will not be possible until there is a fundamental social transformation — specifically, an end to the rule of capitalism, the decadent, global economic system whose continued existence rests on the perpetuation of racism, sexism, homophobia/homohatred and all the other weapons it uses to divide and undermine the potential political power of workers and oppressed people.

Important scholarly inroads in anthropological and queer studies literature have been and continue to be made concerning the existence of homosexuality and alternate gender expression among the many cultures and historical periods of the world’s peoples, but it still requires determined digging to find anthropological documentation for prehistoric same-sex marriage. What we’re looking for at this point in our “Brief History” series are nontransitory same-sex relationships occurring in foraging and hunting groups.

Transgenderal same-sex ‘marriage’

In “Queer Science,” author Simon LeVay writes: “Homosexual relationships fall into a number of different patterns. Among these patterns, three seem to recur widely in different cultures: I will refer to them as transgenderal, age disparate, and companionate relationships. Transgenderal homosexual relationships are those in which one of the two individuals is markedly cross-gendered, while the other is more or less conventional for his or her own sex. In many traditional Native American cultures, for example, there were individuals, known to anthropologists as berdaches (male) or amazons (female), who cross-dressed and took on some of the social roles and attributes of the other sex. (They are sometimes referred to as ‘two-spirit people.’) Berdaches and amazons often married more conventional individuals of the same sex as themselves.” (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996, p. 58)

Midnight Sun is an Anishnawbe Indian lesbian feminist. She has a degree in anthropology/women’s studies and, at the time that her essay, “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America,” was published in “Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology,” she was in training to become a carpenter. Of the three North American tribes she discusses in this essay, only the section on the Mojave people includes material on their homosexual marriage customs. Fortunately, however, she covers Mojave same-sex marriage among women as well as among men. These marriages fall under LeVay’s transgenderal category.

Because the larger purpose of Sun’s essay is to show the relationship between sex/gender systems and the mode of production or subsistence patterns in three tribal groupings, she includes basic social and economic information: “The Mojave are a southwestern American tribe. … In the late seventeenth century they numbered three thousand and subsisted on small-scale agriculture, supplemented by gathering, hunting and fishing. … This subsistence strategy, combined with Mojave kinship, marriage, and residence patterns, allowed for relatively egalitarian male-female relations.” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988, p. 36)

The tribe included “homosexual and lesbian cross-dressers termed ‘alyha’ (male) and ‘hwame’ (female). Not all homosexual or lesbian behavior entailed assumption of the ‘alyha’ or ‘hwame’ roles, however. Those who were involved in marital or sexual relationships with ‘alyha’ or ‘hwame,’ for example, retained the gender identity associated with their biological sex. In other words, Mojave cross-gender categories were distinct from their categories of man and woman.

“’Alyhas’ and ‘hwames’ not only adopted the characteristics of the other gender — they fictively conformed to the biological sex characteristics of their assumed genders. For instance, it was reported that when an ‘alyha’ found a potential husband, he imitated menstruation by scratching his legs until they bled. … ‘Hwames’ found wives at dances and through visiting. … The Mojave believed that intercourse with a pregnant woman could change the paternity of a child, so if a ‘hwame’ seduced a pregnant woman, ‘he’ was entitled to claim paternity and take care of the infant. … The fact that cross-gender individuals were often shamans or married to shamans or chiefs suggests not only cultural acceptance, but an association with status and prestige, as well. This may be due to their value in production, because they could combine elements of both masculine and feminine economic spheres.” (pp. 38-39)

The Mojave report, while informative, involves a culture where agricultural production was already part of the economic basis. For a more thoroughly foraging and hunting culture, we turn to a passage written in the latter part of the 16th century in Walter Williams’ remarkable book, “The Spirit and the Flesh.” Portuguese explorer Pedro de Magalhães de Gandavo’s encounter with the Tupinamba Indians of northeastern Brazil resulted in the following report: “There are some Indian women who … have no commerce with men in any manner. … They give up all the duties of women and imitate men, and follow men’s pursuits as if they were not women. They wear the hair cut in the same way as the men, and go to war with bows and arrows and pursue game, always in company with men; each has a woman to serve her, to whom she says she is married, and they treat each other and speak with each other as man and wife.” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988, p. 233)

Age-disparate same-sex ‘marriage’

David Greenberg’s “The Construction of Homosexuality” offers some examples of what might be called age-disparate same-sex marriages in a summary distilled from a number of anthropological studies of New Guinea foraging, hunting and early agricultural societies: “Transgenerational homosexual relations have been studied most thoroughly in New Guinea and parts of island Melanesia. … After leaving his mother’s hut at age twelve or thirteen to take up residence in the men’s house, a Marind-Anim boy enters into a homosexual relationship with his mother’s brother, who belongs to a different lineage from his own. The relationship endures for roughly seven years. …

“An Etoro boy’s career in homosexuality starts around age ten, when he acquires an older partner, ideally his sister’s husband or fiancé. … The relationship continues until the boy develops a full beard in his early to mid-twenties. At this point, the now-mature young man becomes the older partner of another prepubescent boy, ordinarily his wife’s or fiancé’s younger brother.” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 27-28) While these sexual bondings are less than lifelong, they do suggest, at a minimum, serial homosexual monogamy, paralleling the descriptions of heterosexual pairing marriages among foraging and hunting peoples.

We find reference to age-disparate same-sex marriage among women in an essay by John Mburu, titled “Awakenings: Dreams and Delusions of an Incipient Lesbian and Gay Movement in Kenya.” In this work, which appears in the book “Different Rainbows,” Mburu writes, “The Nandi of Kenya and Lovedu of South Africa had traditions of woman-woman marriage, widespread throughout Africa. The practice involved a widowed elderly woman taking a younger wife, who helped with household chores and bore children as a surrogate for the older woman. While a controversy exists as to whether these relationships were sexual, among the Azande, women formed lesbian relationships amongst themselves that were kept secret from their husbands. … Similar relationships were also fairly common among the Nupe and Hausa of West Africa.” (London: Millivres Ltd., 2000, p. 181)

Mburu doesn’t address the mode of production of the tribal groupings he names, but material in “Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities” suggests that at the time they were observed, these groups were already experiencing the beginnings of economic inequality based on farming. (Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, eds. New York: Palgrave, 1998)

Companionate same-sex ‘marriage’

In the groundbreaking work, “Gay American History,” Jonathan Katz includes passages from the writing of Joseph François Lafitau chronicling his experiences as a Jesuit missionary in French Canada between 1711 and 1717. Although veiled in euphemism and obscurantism, his words suggest the existence of LeVay’s “companionate relationships” among Native American men, at least some of whom belonged to foraging and hunting groups. “The … special friendships among young men, which are instituted in almost the same manner from one end of America to the other, are one of the most interesting sides of their customs. … These bonds of friendship … admit of no suspicion of apparent vice, albeit there is, or may be, real vice. They are highly ancient in their origin, highly marked in the constancy of their practice, consecrated, if I dare say as much, in the union they create, whose bonds are as close as those of blood and nature. … The parents are the first to encourage them and to respect their rights.” (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976, p. 289)

While there may, indeed, be examples of companionate relationships qualifying as “same-sex marriages” among foraging and hunting women, our very cursory search found no clear examples. Given the tendency of many anthropological reports to focus mainly on males and often ignore, minimize or distort the roles of women, this shouldn’t be surprising.

But several other factors are involved. Female members of foraging and hunting groups are not likely to share with male investigators information on their sexual activities or relationships. In fact, after initial, unpleasant contact with Christian missionaries or other representatives of patriarchal society, neither women nor men of foraging and hunting societies are likely to speak openly about matters which they already know these outsiders disapprove of or view with disdain. Finally, though, we can be sure that the matrilineal clan form of social organization provided ample opportunities for long-term, companionate relationships between women.

While the word “marriage” may or may not be used to characterize transgenderal, age disparate and companionate homosexual relationships among foraging and hunting peoples, the reports we’ve reviewed make it clear that such relationships existed as a part of early human societies, were much more than promiscuous, transient “couplings,” and, most importantly, benefited from the general acceptance and benign approval of their heterosexually oriented kin. We need to learn from our ancestors!

The following installments in this series will describe a fundamental transformation in human social relations paralleling the adoption of agricultural production, a transformation that included disastrous implications for women, homosexual relations, gender nonconformity and the institution of “marriage.”