On Marriage in "Recorded History", an Open Letter to Gov. Mitt Romney

Dear Governor Romney,

On November 18 the Massachusetts high court ruled that discrimination against gay couples in matters relating to marriage violated the Commonwealth’s constitution. You immediately rejected that decision, declaring: “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman … and our constitution and laws should reflect that.” Your official website informed the public that you “will support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution to make that expressly clear[M]arriage is a special institution that should be reserved for a man and a woman.”

So you “agree with history,” you say, on this question of gay marriage. As an historian, I don’t agree or disagree with “history,” which is not a person with an opinion, but merely the record of countless people pursuing their own ends, interacting with one another and their environments through time. (Occasionally they make breakthroughs, producing new things; there’s no reason for sentient beings to be stuck on precedent.) “I agree with history” is really a meaningless statement, rather like saying “I agree with time,” or “I agree with reality,” or “I agree with the way my father and grandfather and my ancestors before them thought about things.” What I suppose you’re really saying is that you agree with the proposition that heterosexual marriage (of some sort) should be recognized by law, to the specific exclusion of homosexual unions. You deploy in support of that proposition the assertion that this is the way it’s always been. Gay marriage, you thus contend, will be a radical departure from our civilized past.

But this is just not true, Governor. You invoke “History” as though it’s some source of authority, but you really don’t know much about it, do you? “No investigation, no right to speak,” I always say, and if you want to talk about homosexual unions in recorded history you should do some study first. First I recommend you read John Boswell’s fine book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980), in which he documents legally recognized homosexual marriage in ancient Rome extending into the Christian period, and his Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (Villard Books, 1994), in which he discusses Church-blessed same-sex unions and even an ancient Christian same-sex nuptial liturgy. Then check out my Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan (University of California Press, 1995) in which I describe the “brotherhood-bonds” between samurai males, involving written contracts and sometimes severe punishments for infidelity, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Check out the literature on the Azande of the southern Sudan, where for centuries warriors bonded, in all legitimacy, with “boy-wives.” Or read Marjorie Topley’s study of lesbian marriages in Guangdong, China into the early twentieth century. Check out Yale law professor William Eskridge’s The Case for Same-Sex Marriage (1996), and other of this scholar’s works, replete with many historical examples.

What the study of world history will really tell you, Governor, is that pretty much any kind of sexual behavior can become institutionalized somewhere, sometime. You know that polygamy remains normal and legal in many nations, as it was among your Mormon forebears in Utah. In Tibet, polyandry has a long history, and modern Chinese law seems powerless to prevent marriages between one women and two or three men. Getting back to same-sex issues, the Sambia of New Guinea have traditionally believed that for an adolescent boy to grow into a man, he absolutely must fellate an adult male and chug the semen down. I’m not making this up; see Gilbert H. Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes (Columbia University Press, 1981). Now you and I would see that as a kind of child abuse, but to the Sambians, it’s just common sense. It’s been that way for well over 3,000 years of their history. (You might want to ask yourself: does that 3,000 year record make it right?) Some ancient Greek tribes had a similar notion of the necessary reception of semen to make a boy a man, only with them it was an anal-routed process. (See works by Jan Bremmer, for starters, on this practice as an “initiation rite” among various Indo-European peoples.)

Some suggest that there have been two basic traditions of male homosexual behavior on this planet, prior to the evolution of the contemporary egalitarian model: these inter-generational role-specific ones, in both pre-class and more sophisticated societies; and those that involve males who assume a female or transgender identity, who often also have shamanistic roles, such as the berdache of Native American peoples, or the hijra in Hindu society. These are generally available for “straight” men to bed with if they want to. A variation of this tradition is the ancient Mesopotamian male temple-prostitute (the cult of which spread to Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament; see 1 Kings14:24, 22:47, etc.). The idea was, you’d bugger one of these holy prostitutes, mystically unite with the deity thereby, and by your fee for this pleasure opportunity, assist in the maintenance of the temple. I’m not trying to gross you out or anything, Governor, just help you recognize that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your (somewhat too confident) philosophy of sexual history.

Over the last 3,000 years to which you specifically allude (someone else was telling National Public Radio that the Supreme Justice Court ruling defied 5,000 years, which would make departure from precedent even more serious), there has in fact been no global marriage norm. In some societies, a man and woman, of their own free will, formed a relationship, decided to forge a life-long commitment, got the necessary permissions and ceremonial legitimacy, started having sex after that, and maintained a monogamous union thereafter until one died. That’s been very unusual, though. Arranged marriages involving varying degrees of input by the couple (usually less by the female) have been more the norm. (Do you realize, Governor, how radically sections of humankind departed from the prior “history” you so validate, when we started insisting on the freedom of young couples to marry without their parent’s consent, and to do so based on “love”—which is another complex and evolving historical category? You might perhaps read Friedrich Engels’ still relevant book The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and learn something about how capitalism and the whole notion of the free market played a positive role here.)

For demographic and economic reasons (rather than articulated moral ones), monogamy has generally been far more widespread than polygamy. But in more societies than not, wealthy, powerful men have enjoyed the polygamous option. That of course goes for the ancient Hebrews, whose example inclined the founders of your church, that of the Latter-Day Saints, to enthusiastically endorse the practice from the church’s founding in 1830 up to Wilford Woodruff and his Manifesto in 1890. Then, whether due to a divine revelation, or to a desire to get Utah admitted to the Union (it’s not for me to judge) LDS up and banned polygamy. Although, of course, some rogue elements continue the practice which mainstream Mormons now consider illicit.

But to agree with three, or five, or twelve thousand years of random past practice would require you, Governor Romney, to oppose the ban that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has from its inception placed on polygamy. I tell you, though: if you refused to do that, I’d be right there behind you. I’m a tolerant person and I realize that lots of Thai and Nigerian and Saudi guys have multiple wives, and maybe I even sort of lust, Carter-like, in my heart to emulate them. But I’m not a total moral relativist, and as public policy, I think monogamy’s the right road, and you should stand firm in its support, never mind the Mormon past, which isn’t your fault in any case.

Another thing. Not to get personal, but I’ve been married to a Japanese woman for 20 years. I’m aware some people have problems with this sort of arrangement; for a long time (from 1905) in California “miscegenation” between whites and “Mongolians” of all types was banned by law. But such laws seem so stupid now, don’t they? At the time, such intimacies were depicted as “unnatural” mixes of racial superiors with inferiors bound to mess up the pure white gene pool. Of course the Mormon Church was committed to the view that African-Africans were inferior (and certainly unfit as partners to Mormon whites) way up until 1978, when Spencer Kimball, the 12th Prophet, got his word from the Lord and the policy was revised. Before that, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that Virginia state law banning black-white intermarriage could not be enforced; very recently (1998), South Carolina chucked its constitutional clause, dating to 1895, forbidding “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who should have one-eighth or more Negro blood.” Things change if people want them to.

When I got married, the Japanese had a law that the children of Japanese men and foreign women would automatically have Japanese citizenship, but those of foreign men and Japanese women would be denied that status. (The idea was: only Japanese semen makes Japanese kids.) This discriminatory treatment reflected the longstanding patriarchal prejudices of the Japanese legal code. By chance my daughter was born in the year that the law was changed (following protests by Japanese wives of foreigners), to confer Japanese citizenship on all children of Japanese nationals. So by random chance my kids are dual-nationals. That just seems reasonable, right? But there was a time in which those in power in Tokyo recoiled at the idea that a hairy-faced foreign barbarian’s offspring would mix equally with the progeny of the Sun Goddess in the Land of the Gods. My point, again, is just that views on these issues aren’t historically static, and good decent people can work to change them.

The freedom to link yourself to another, and benefit from whatever range of privileges your political and cultural environment confer on “marriage,” should not be arbitrarily confined to males who are attracted to females, and to females attracted to males. Even if that premise had, in fact, as you suggest, prevailed since the dawn of civilization, it would be irrational. If history (with a capital H), has any function at all, it is to induce people, merely through cumulative experience, to get more rational, and thereby alleviate the kinds of suffering they can inflict upon themselves. Recognition of gay marriage is a step towards recognizing reality, and alleviating the oppression homophobic ignorance and hatred inevitably inflict. That’s the reasoning behind the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ ruling.

You, in response, panicking at the prospect of a broader, more inclusive concept of marriage, have proposed as a half-way measure legislation recognizing “civil unions” between same-sex couples. But please, Governor, go to sleep, have a dream, an open-minded divinely inspired dream. Let God Almighty, or whoever, Himself appear to you and say, “I’ve decided to revise the earlier, 3000-year old institution you’ve been talking about. For no more shall ye make any distinction among my people as to their sexual preference. I the Lord God am no respecter of persons, but all shall come unto me and all of legal age may be worthy to receive all the blessings of marriage. So, Mitt, assemble the people in the tabernacle which is the Massachusetts State House, on Beacon Street and Park Street in Boston, and speak unto them these words, saying: ‘Gay marriage actually has lots of historical precedents. May Massachusetts, cradle of the Revolution, point the way once again in demanding recognition of what is just, fair, reasonable, and civilized.'”



GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu