Lesbian Unions: A history

Lesbian Unions: the Invisible Institution by Karen McCandlish (used with permission by author) The issues of sexual preference are religious, civil, political, familial and private. They touch on every aspect of society. The past and present abuses of lesbians are well known, so to only briefly recount them here seems sufficient. Volumes of text could and have been written on the subject of lesbians and the military ban, lack of rights and protection against discrimination, the committing of lesbians to psychiatric hospitals and prisons, gay bashing, job firing, exclusion from family, society and church, bitter custody battles and the many other ills befalling lesbians in the past and the present. The intent of my paper is not to deal with these all too familiar mistreatments of women who love women, but to explore more deeply this love that continues even in the face of such attacks. Even without the legal right to marry, many lesbians live out committed, sometimes lifelong, relationships with one another. If relationships with the support of the community and family are hard enough to maintain in today's society, how much more difficult it must be to sustain a lesbian relationship with all the added obstacles of homophobia and society's negative impression of lesbians. In this paper I will give brief examples of lesbian relationships within the Native American, Chinese, African, European and American societies. In Native American culture there were believed to be four sexes rather than two. Male and female, and Berdache men and women (which would be somewhat equivalent to gays and lesbians in our society). "Many American Indian societies accepted that certain individuals were neither men nor women, but belonged to an alternative gender; their spirit, or character, was seen as more important than their sex in determining social identity." (Williams, cover") Berdache usually cross-dressed and mimicked the lifestyle of the opposite sex, thus they were accepted as such, regardless of their true gender. Such berdache women married women. They were considered to be holy people with shamanistic abilities. The Yumas of the Southwest called them "kwe'rhame" and the Mohaves, "hwame". Unlike lesbians in the Western world, Berdache women were for the most part accepted and in many cases highly honored. The hwame and the kwe'rhame, as well as female berdache from many other tribes, were considered to have acquired their masculine nature by the spirit from within the womb. Children were often incorporated into woman-woman relationships and if a hwame married a pregnant woman the hwame was considered to be the child's real father. (Williams, 240) Sahaykwisa, a Mohave, differed from other hwame in that she wore women's clothing and behaved in a somewhat feminine manner. Because of this difference to the social standard of most female berdache, she received some harassment for her lack of conformity in this respect. It is suggested that, because she never fully adapted to the male role, she was not wholly accepted as a hwame. Several sources noted that the constant teasing of jealous men was the possible reason that her first wife left her. Regardless of social pressures, in some cases positive healthy and long lasting relationships developed between women. Co'pak, of the Klamath, "had a wife, with whom she lived for many years" and when her wife died she mourned for her. (Williams, 242) Still less is known about lesbians within the Chinese culture. One hypothesis is that this is because literature is a male dominated institution and men do not consider women's affairs as begin important. Another theory is that the Chinese "dui-shi" rarely existed, since women were bound economically to their husbands and often secluded from one another, and so they had little opportunity to develop close bonds with other women (Bret, 234). The "Golden Orchid Association" of Southern China, however, did perform marriage ceremonies between women couples. Within these ceremonies ritual gifts were exchanged, the actual wedding was performed and then there was a feast, not unlike an American wedding. The couple could even adopt female children, who were eligible to inherit family property from the couple's parents. Some Buddhist beliefs fostered a positive image of lesbianism within their reincarnation theory. One such belief was that two people, destined to remarry each other in successive lives, might both be reincarnated as women (Bret, 176). In Africa, among the Nuer, Kipsigis and Lovedu peoples, women married other women and the Yoruba, Yagba, Akoko, Nupe, Gana-Gana, Fon, Ibo, Dinka, Venda, Igbo and the Bobo Nieniege of the Ivory Coast also have records of woman-woman marriages (Butler, 9). Like their Native American counterpart, African lesbians were considered among the tribe's medicine people, as spiritual healers. In Europe, two upper class Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, known as "the Ladies of Llangollen", eloped in 1778 and settled in a cottage in the Llangollen Vale in Wales. They achieved a successful monogamous relationship with each other for 53 years, at which time one of them died. Boston marriages were common in the 19th century, which embodied long term monogamous relationships between two women. They were generally financially independent of men by inheritance or by career. Passing women, like the Native American female berdache, dressed and acted like men, in order to live out their sexual preference and at the same time be accepted by their society. Sometimes women who passed as men were able to bypass the social stigmas of their sexual orientation, thus avoiding some of the financial and social repercussions of their lifestyle. However, being "closeted" and crossing over gender lines presented new stresses to their lives. With daily struggles to keep their true sex hidden, there was a constant fear of being discovered. Becky Butler's book, Ceremonies of the Heart, celebrates women from many diverse cultures and religions who have had "union ceremonies" to honor their love for one another. Among them are Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Buddhists, New Agers, and Wiccans. Similarly, the book, Lesbian Nuns, by Rosemary Curb, tells the stories of numerous women who left the convent to pursue relationships, some long-term, with the women that they loved. The book, Nice Jewish Girls, by Evelyn Beck, recounts the experiences of Jewish lesbians. There seems to be no doubt that lesbian relationships are found in nearly every culture and time period and that the participants of such relationships come from a variety of religious background. There are countless examples of lesbian marriage, both in the past and in the present, too numerous to recount here. I believe that with society's improved attitudes and proper education to dispel myths and prejudices about homosexuals that there is continued hope for development of more positive, healthy, open, long lasting monogamous relationships between women. Bibiography Beck, Evelyn. Nice Jewish Girls. New York: The Crossing Press, 1982. Bret, Hinsch. Passions of the Cut Sleeve. California: University of California Press, 1990. Butler, Becky. Ceremonies of the Heart: Celebrating Lesbian Unions. Washington: The Seal Press, 1990. Curb, Rosemary. Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. New York: Warner Books, 1985. Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1981. Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976. Williams, Walter L. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diveristy in American Indian Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.