Will Bagley: In Utah We've Always Known that Marriage Is an Ever-Changing Institution

Will Bagley, the the Salt Lake Tribune (Feb. 29, 2004):

Marriage, says BYU law professor Richard G. Wilkins,"has always been about one sexual relationship -- the union of a man and a woman." Of course, this would be news to Brigham Young, who said"I do" to some 56 women.

Consider the furor and outrage Mormon polygamy evoked in the 19th century.

The laws sanctifying the one-man, one-woman model of marriage had forced millions upon millions of women"to become a prey to man's lust and a consuming sacrifice upon the altar of illicit passion," the Deseret Evening News thundered in December 1885.

"One man to one woman only," the newspaper proclaimed, was"the exception in Christendom as well as heathendom" and was"one impracticable standard."

The News argued that polygamous marriage"prevails all over the world, and those who pretend to the contrary are very simple or very untruthful." That's a debatable point, even though it appeared in the pages of what The Salt Lake Tribune used to call"the font of truth," but marriage has been a flexible institution throughout history.

Much of the current debate over same-sex marriage reflects a relatively new tradition of fear and hatred of homosexuals in American culture. The concept of homosexuality only appeared in European medical literature in the late 1860s and reached the United States by 1892, but it was the sodomy trial of British poet Oscar Wilde in 1895 that introduced the concept to popular culture.

The"queer eye" was nothing new, however, even in Utah.

When Wilde (popularly known as the"Sunflower Apostle") visited Salt Lake City in 1882, he complimented LDS Church President John Taylor for his fine aesthetic judgment, and the Deseret News reported that young men adorned with enormous sunflowers filled the front row of his crowded lecture on interior decorating. (None of this was a stereotype in 1882.)

The Victorians turned it into an identity, but same-sex sex has been going on since time immemorial and was considered entirely natural in ancient Greece and Rome.

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill didn't actually say"the only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash," but he may have wished he had.

Rather than treat gay people as social outcasts, many cultures integrated men and women with transsexual natures into their societies. When French Jesuit missionaries found men among the Iroquois who dressed and acted as women, they called them berdache, incorrectly equating them with male prostitutes.

Many scholars now prefer the term"two-spirit." American Indian languages had a variety of terms -- winkte (Lakota), nadleeh (Navajo), hemanah (Cheyenne), kwid-(Tewa), tainna wa'ippe (Shoshone), dubuds (Paiute) and lhamana (Zuni) to identify"a person who has both male and female spirits within," notes Lakota scholar Beatrice Medicine.

Anthropologists such as Elsie Parsons long ago observed that two-spirited men often married other men. Even earlier, William Clark told the first editor of the Lewis and Clark journals that Hidatsa boys who showed"girlish inclinations" were raised as women and married men.

Somehow, male-female marriage managed to survive in these cultures. Marriage even survived polygamy, which had extended the"blessings of matrimony and of home instead of discarding or destroying them," the Deseret News argued."It surrounds the domestic relations with safeguards and a sacredness that are stronger and more enduring than any others."

Restricting such a good thing seems selfish.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network