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A Short History of Same-Sex Marriage

May 4, 2010

By Frances Correa
Capital News Service

While gay marriage continues to be a controversial topic, particularly in the United States, unions between individuals of the same sexual orientation are not new.

According to Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, civil unions between males can be traced back 600 years to medieval Europe.

Same-sex civil unions also were acceptable in ancient China. During the Ming dynasty, both males and females in the Chinese province of Fujian would enter into contractual unions and celebrate with elaborate ceremonies.

America was not nearly as accepting.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson passed a law mandating castration for gay men and mutilation of nose cartilage for lesbians.

Over time, public sentiment toward homosexual relations changed – in some countries more than in others.

In 1961, Australia passed a law recognizing same-sex marriage.

The U.S. gay rights movement took off in 1969 after the Stonewall Riots. The New York Police Department raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village, arresting employees and drag performers. However, the community struck back. About 2,000 gay and transgender customers turned on the police. Riots continued for three days.

In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to political office when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While acceptance of gay marriage in America was still far off, the gay community took a large step toward equal treatment.

Denmark recognized same-sex marriage in 1989. The same recognition would not come to the U.S. until the Massachusetts Supreme Court approved equal marriage rights for gays in 2003 with a 6-3 ruling. The decision became law in 2004.

On May 17, 2004, Marcia Hams and Susan Shepherd were the first same-sex couple in the U.S. to have a state-sanctioned marriage. Massachusetts was followed by Connecticut in 2008, Iowa and Vermont in 2009 and New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., in 2010.

More than 3,000 same-sex couples have been married in D.C. Maryland recently decided it would recognize same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, Virginia, a neighbor of both Maryland and D.C., has continued debating, and opposing, same-sex marriage.

In 2006, Virginia voters amended the state Constitution to say:

  • Marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

  • Virginia will not recognize “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.”

  • Nor will the state recognize “another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.”

David Englin, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has repeatedly sponsored legislation to repeal Virginia’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. His proposals have gone nowhere.

Against that backdrop, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in March set off more debate about gay rights. He sent a letter to Virginia colleges and universities encouraging them to rescind their policies of antidiscrimination based on sexual orientation. In response to the letter, rallies and protests were held at universities all across the commonwealth.

“You know the saying ‘Virginia is for lovers,’ ” said Tarynn Witten, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Well, really it should have been ‘Virginia is for the right kind of lovers – the politically correct kind of lovers.’ “

When the D.C. Council was considering its same-sex marriage law, Washington resident Marin Graney testified at a hearing on the issue.

“Many of the arguments I heard were based on what the Bible says,” Graney said. “And I think if we made all of our country’s laws based on what the Bible says, we’d be a very different country – and not the United States of America.”

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