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Column 'Traditional' marriage? It hasn't always been between a man and a woman

Many opponents of marriage equality espouse the values of ‘tradition’ and believe sanctioned unions have always been between a man and a woman … but that’s not true, writes Peter Ferguson.

THOSE WHO OPPOSE equal marriage often state they do not want marriage redefined and merely believe in ‘traditional’ marriage. The problem which such logic lies in the word ‘traditional’, it is a word that generally carries positive connotations due to its links to cultural and social customs which we often value in society.

However, not all traditions are worth preserving; for example, it was once traditional for only men to vote. This is one such tradition which was happily redefined for the betterment of society. So the preservation of a tradition should be based on the substance and merits of that tradition, and not defended simply because it is a tradition.

Same-sex marriage in ancient cultures

So how did the current definition of marriage arise? Many opponents of equal marriage would like to believe that marriage has always been between a man and a woman, but this simply is not true. Same-sex marriages have been recorded globally across many cultures. Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies recognised same-sex marriages legally and in their culture, literature, and mythology. A tomb of a same-sex couple (circa 2600 BC) depicts two men holding hands and embracing each other. Their union had been sanctioned by the state and the Pharaoh provided the tomb.

In Mesopotamia, two kings, Zimri-Lim of Mari and Hammurabi, had male lovers which were akin to wives. The Almanac of Incantations contained prayers favouring, on an equal basis, homosexual and heterosexual love. Mesopotamia had numerous legal codes which strictly governed marriage, none of which prohibited same-sex marriage.

Homosexuality was common practise in ancient Rome and Greece and, although infrequent, same-sex marriages did occur. An emperor Elagabalus married an athlete named Zoticus in an extravagant ceremony which was celebrated by all the citizenry. Nero married two different men in ritual ceremonies that were legally recognised. Women, too, engaged in same-sex marriages but these occurred less frequently due to the lower social status of women in Roman society.

In Africa, women would sometimes take on the role of “female husbands”. They would marry women and take on the legal and social responsibility of husband and father, with all the rights and privileges that the men traditionally had. In Lesotho, women engaged in same-sex unions called motsoalle, these were long-term erotic relationships and were socially recognised.

Concepts of gender

Native Americans did not adhere to the strict binary gender concept of male and female. They believed there were three genders, the third being labelled “two-spirit” people. They were viewed as having two spirits occupying the one body. These individuals would often wear the clothing of both male and female and perform tasks of male and females. They would frequently engage in same-sex marriages which were recognised by the tribe.

Albeit a brief history, it is quite evident that same-sex marriages are not a new concept. They existed throughout numerous cultures spanning millennia. Which brings me back to my original question: how did the current definition of marriage, which is strictly between a man and a woman, arise? It arose when same-sex marriages were outlawed in the Theodosian Code in 342 AD by Christian emperors Constans and Constantius II. Any individuals found in same-sex marriages were to be put to death.

This edict effectively ceased all same-sex marriages in Europe, restricting marriage to between a man and a woman. Eventually homosexual activity itself was punishable by death. As Europeans colonised the Americas and Africa they brought this strict definition of marriage with them and enforced it among the local cultures. For example, the two-spirit people of the Americas were publicly executed by being burnt alive or by being torn apart by dogs.

Not all traditions are created equally

I think it is safe to say without too much controversy that such treatment of homosexuals is homophobic. It is due to such treatment that the current definition of marriage exists and was able to propagate. Without the outlawing of such marriages, same-sex marriage would have continued to exist just as it did for many millennia beforehand. Although, for the most part, homosexuality is no longer punishable by death, the reverberations of the original edicts are still felt today as the prohibition of same-sex marriages still exists. So when opponents of equal marriage state they merely belief in traditional marriage, this is the tradition they are defending: a tradition founded upon exclusion and violent persecution. Is this a tradition to be proud of? Is it a tradition worthy of being preserved?

If people wish to oppose equal marriage then they must proffer better protestations than relying on tradition. Supporting the continuation of a tradition which arose through discriminatory means is discrimination in itself.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at Twitter @humanisticus


Read: Fine Gael says ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage but ‘no’ to legalising cannabis

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