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Gay Marriage: The Struggle Is Far From Over

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By Douglas Feldman

Clearly, the two recent decisions by the Supreme Court, to end the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to effectively legalize gay marriage in California, will expand LGBT rights in the United States. But the struggle is far from over. Gay marriage is still illegal in 37 states, and it will be a long time before some of the more conservative red states agree to change. Last month, Rep. Nancy Pelosi announced that she did not have sufficient votes in Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal to fire someone for being gay. Indeed, most states have not yet made LGBT workplace discrimination illegal.

The socially conservative view against gay marriage, and homosexuality in general, is heard repeatedly on conservative talk radio, in fundamentalist churches, in red state halls of government, in many blue-collar bars and taverns across the country, and even occasionally in Congress. This view argues that homosexuality itself is abnormal and disgusting, and that gay marriage is morally wrong. The argument goes that gay marriage has never existed in any society until recently, that heterosexual marriage has always existed for thousands of years unchanged, and that homosexuality itself is unnatural, and therefore a crime against nature, since it does not exist in any other species.

But anthropological research disputes all of this. Gay marriage, in one form or another, has existed for thousands of years in many cultures. In Africa alone, the ethnographic data show that there are at least 42 cultures with documented gay or lesbian marriage or commitment ceremonies. It is ironic that the colonial experience in Africa has left an anti-gay legacy from 19th and early 20th century England and France. Today, "sodomy" -- while now legal in most of Europe -- is still illegal in most African nations, and homosexuality is punishable by death in four African countries. It is not surprising that President Obama's recent suggestion in Senegal that African nations end LGBT repression was not successful.

The view that Christianity has always been opposed to gay marriage is also not true. In early Greek Christianity, same-sex commitment ceremonies were celebrated. In fact, two Christian saints, Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus, who were openly gay, had a same-sex commitment ceremony together in A.D. 303.

Heterosexual marriage as we know it has been evolving throughout the world. Until recently, most cultures were polygamous, where the ideal was for one man to marry two or more wives if he could afford it. This still continues in many rural areas of the world. In a few cultures, the pattern still is for one wife to marry two or more husbands, who are often brothers. In some cultures and religious groups, the pattern has been to have group marriage. And in two cultures, the Nayar of India and the Na of China, there is no marriage at all. In most cultures, marriage has been a contract between families, not individuals. For the most part, love as a reason for marriage is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In Europe, marriages with the exchange of vows developed fairly late during the medieval period. Officiating priests came even later. And according to anthropologist Roger Lancaster, "Later yet, the Church starts to keep records. And much later, the state becomes involved." Wedding rings with diamonds did not become popular in the United States until the 1930s, and wedding rings for husbands first became common in the 1940s.

Biological anthropologists are aware that one of humans' closest relatives, separated by only 7 million years, is the bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee), who is frequently sexually active with members of both the opposite and the same sex. Biologists are learning that literally hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and insects are known to engage regularly in same-sex behavior and desire. It is possible that same-sex behavior and desire is universal in a subset, about 5 to 10 percent, of all living animals. Homosexuality is then perfectly natural.

The modern gay rights movement in the United States began in 1950 with the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, and then was further empowered with the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City. However, it was likely the AIDS crisis during the late 1980s that mobilized the LGBT community into even greater political activity. Gay men were literally fighting for their lives. The media played an important force for gay rights during the late 1990s, first with Ellen, then with Will and Grace, and then with gay subplots on nearly every daytime soap opera. By the 2000s, homophobic attitudes began to change. Today, the majority of Americans now support gay marriage.

But the social conservatives are still there, armed with their misconceptions. The Supreme Court decisions were a major breakthrough in LGBT rights, but we now face new challenges in our struggle for equal rights and acceptance for all Americans.

Douglas A. Feldman is Professor of Anthropology at SUNY-Brockport and President of the Society for Medical Anthropology.