Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Taking a 'Husband'

A History of Gay Marriage

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This essay may not be republished without the permission of the author.

Consulting my Grand Larousse – and the Oxford English Dictionary for good measure – I discover that the word "marry" comes from the Latin term for "a husband" (maritus), which comes from the Latin word for "a man" (mas, maris). The notion of "marriage" therefore doesn't seem to refer to "wives".

Photograph of a gay male couple at their wedding

I should have realized this from listening to Francesco Cavalli's early 17th century opera La Calisto, in which the chaste and elderly nymph Linfea (played by a man) sings to the satyr Satirino (played by a woman) those immortal words:

Amore ti prego
che vago e gradito
mi trovi, mi trovi
un marito

That is:

Love find me a husband
who's madly attractive,
whose young and who's active.

Theoretically a person who gets "married" may take either a husband or a wife. But if we look at the history of "marriage" ceremonies, we will note that the most common meaning is, indeed, "to take a husband".

This provokes a number of conclusions: (1) a woman may "marry" a husband; (2) a man may "marry" a husband; and (3) a woman may not "marry" a woman. That is, lesbians cannot "marry" one another without violating the laws of linguistics, but gay men can.

Male Brides

So much for words. Let us now peruse the tarnished pages of history. Gay men seem to have frequently married one another throughout history. In fact, in some societies marriages between gay men were officially recognized by the state, as in ancient Sparta, and on the Dorian island of Thera.

Much later, in 2nd century Rome, conjugal contracts between men of about the same age were ridiculed but legally binding. Such marriages were blessed by pagan religions, particularly sects of the Mother Goddess Cybele (imported from Asia Minor). At the ceremony, the bridal party consists entirely of men, who enter the temple and deck each other with "gay fillets round the forehead . . . and strings of orient pearls." They light a torch in honor of the goddess and sacrifice a pregnant swine. One man gets up and chooses a husband for himself, and dances himself into a frenzy. Then he drinks deeply from a goblet in the shape of a large penis, flings the goblet away, strips off his clothes, and "takes the stole and flammea of a bride" and the two men are married.

The "bride" is a transvestite only for the duration of this ceremony, for in a deeply religious sense he has temporarily become the goddess at these holy rites. The other men sing a hymenal drinking-song, and then pair up amongst themselves to celebrate multiple nuptials by group sex (i.e. orgies). The following day the names of all the pairs are registered in legal records as formal marriages.

Many ancient writers, such as Strabo and Athenaeus, wrote that the Gauls or Celts commonly practised homosexuality. Aristotle wrote that the Celts "openly held in honor passionate friendship (synousia) between males". Diodorus Siculus wrote that "Although the Gauls have lovely women, they scarcely pay attention to them, but strangely crave male embraces (arrenon epiplokas). Resting on the ground on beasts' skins, they are accustomed to roll about with bedfellows (parakoitois) on either side." Later, Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote that "Among the Gauls, the young men marry each other (gamountai) with complete freedom. In doing this, they do not incur any reproach or blame, since this is done according to custom amongst them." Bardaisan of Edessa wrote that "In the countries of the north — in the lands of the Germans and those of their neighbors, handsome [noble] young men assume the role of wives [women] towards other men, and they celebrate marriage feasts."

The Mollies

Let us now leap ahead to early 18th century London, where gay men also got married, but without legal sanction. In the 1720s there were about 40 "molly houses" in central London, disorderly pubs or coffee houses where gay men (called "mollies") socialized, singing bawdy songs and dancing country dances while someone played the fiddle. Many of these gay clubs had a "Marrying Room" or "Chapel", where, according to witnesses, "They would go out by couples into another room on the same floor, to be married, as they called it, and when they came back they would tell what they had been doing." These marriages were not monogamous, and 18-year-old Ned Courtney was "helped to two or three Husbands" in the Marrying Room of the Royal Oak at the corner of St James's Square, Pall Mall.

Sometimes the ceremony was more formal. One "Wedding Night" in 1728 included two men acting as "Bridesmaids" as well as the bridal couple. Though transvestism does not seem to have been practised at such ceremonies, both men, as well as most other mollies, would adopt a "Maiden Name". Men who formed such marriages included St Dunstan's Kate and Madam Blackwell; Mademoiselle Gent (alias William Gent) and John Whale (alias Peggy Whale); and Aunt May (an upholsterer) and Dip-Candle Mary (a tallow-chandler). In spite of these maiden names – which both partners assumed – there is no indication of male-female role playing, for both men referred to their partner as a "Husband". The term "wife" was never used among gay men.

Molly marriages didn't have the blessing of any church until the 1810s, when Rev John Church officiated as the "Chaplain" at male gay marriages at The Swan in Vere Street. Some of the members of this gay brothel were Miss Selina, a police constable; Black-Eyed Leonora, a Drummer of the Guards; and Miss Sweet Lips, a country grocer. Rev Church, a Baptist, also presided at gay funerals, for example the burial of Richard Oakden, hanged for sodomy on November 15, 1809. Church himself was sent to prison for two years in 1817.

American Indians

Let us now leap across the waters to look at gay marriages among the American Indians, particularly the Sioux and the Cheyenne. In most such marriages one of the two men was a berdache, a transvestite/medicine man who wore men's clothes only when he joined a war party, where he cared for the wounded. The berdaches were especially popular with young people, for they were excellent matchmakers – in a sense they personified the very concept of marriage – and fine love talkers. They got married to either the loafers of the village, or would become the second or third "wife" of the chieftain. Usually their husbands were more ridiculed than they themselves were, not because of homosexuality, which Indians generally tolerated, but because such husbands usually abandoned their economic status in society, and let the berdache do all the work to create the model household.

One of the more famous berdaches was Yellow Head of the Cheyenne, who became the third wife of Chief Wagetote after being rejected by the white mountaineer John Tanner. Even today there are still some berdaches, called winktes among the Sioux, or "two-spirit" persons, but most of them have disappeared, as Indians on the reservations give up their old ways and adopt the civilization of the white man.


In all these cultures and periods there's no hard and fast evidence that gay marriages are "imitations" of heterosexual marriages. The truth of the matter may be quite different: heterosexual marriage is very likely an imitation of what is essentially a homosexual mating pattern.

The most primitive forms of marriage ceremonies (see Marie Delcourt's book Hermaphrodite, 1961) always involved transvestism and group sex, and were seldom exclusively heterosexual. In modern marriage ceremonies the bridal gown has been important precisely because it originated in the holy robe donned by a male transvestite worshipper of the Mother Goddess. The "Best Man" – who is quite unnecessary if the ceremony were essentially heterosexual – is the hold-over from the days when it was he who married the Groom. That is, the Bride and Best Man are really the same person, a symbolic split of the male spouse before and after donning the veil for the ceremony. The ring that the Best Man bears is the sublimated remains of the phallic goblet in the cult of Cybele.

Within the field of mythology – which contains memories of a prehistoric past – unions between men and women are rare or nonexistent until fairly modern times, although unions between men are always a central feature of the earliest cultural sagas. (Theodor Gaster in Thespis says that marriage doesn't occur at all in ancient near-eastern myths from 3300 BC to 400 BC.) Anthropologists have discovered that the primary social bond among primates is the same-sex one between males, and usually involves actual sex (see Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups, 1969). Modern psychologists are increasingly recognizing that the most lasting and genuine emotional attachments are not between heterosexual husbands and wives, but between men and their menfriends, and women and their womenfriends.

I'm vastly amused whenever I observe a man and a woman trying to achieve between themselves that degree of intimacy that is only possible between persons of the same gender. It's even more touching to watch their attempts to found a friendship upon the rutting instinct. It simply cannot be done. However much heterosexuals try to compensate for the failures of their own marriages by projecting their frustrations upon homosexuals, they'll never overcome the probability that heterosexual "romance" is a cultural superfluity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Taking a 'Husband': A History of Gay Marriage", Gay History and Literature, 21 February 2004, amended 3 February 2006, updated 13 June 2008 <>.

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