07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Joining Together Those Whose Love Dare Not Speak its Name

At the beginning of this month, President Barack Obama proclaimed June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month in the United States, and there are many things to celebrate. There is also more work to be done.

The President's proclamation () states: "The LGBT rights movement has achieved great progress, but there is more work to be done. LGBT youth should feel safe to learn without the fear of harassment, and LGBT families and seniors should be allowed to live their lives with dignity and respect." Yes. And? And of same-sex marriage? The proclamation says that the administration will "continue to support measures to bring the full spectrum of equal rights to LGBT Americans. These measures include enhancing hate crimes laws, supporting civil unions and Federal rights for LGBT couples," and... let's stop the quote right there at the phrase "civil unions." Indeed, there's more work to be done.

One of the ongoing objections (among many) to same-sex unions (and certainly to same-sex marriage) is that this phenomenon is something new; it has no history. Since this is a medievalist's love and marriage blog that puts modern morals and mores in a historical perspective, finding the history for same-sex unions has been part of an ongoing investigation. And research shows that same-sex unions are not new; they have a history.

One of the earliest medieval liturgical manuscripts for sacramental union is the eighth-century Vatican MS Barberini 336, which contains four ceremonies: one for heterosexual betrothal, two prayers for heterosexual marriage, and a comparable prayer for uniting two men. Besides Barberini 336, there are at least seven other known versions of a same-sex union prior to the twelfth century, including a tenth-century one from the Greek Basilian monastery of Grottaferrata, south of Rome. Part of the office for a same-sex uniting is as follows (the text and translation of the Greek is courtesy of John Boswell from his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe):

O Lord our God, who made humankind in thine image and likeness and gave it power over all flesh everlasting, and who now hast approved thy saints and apostles Philip and Bartholomew becoming partners, not bound together by nature, but in the unity of holy spirit and in the mode of faith, thou who didst consider thy saints and martyrs Serge and Bacchus worthy to be united, bless thy servants, N. and N....[grant them] to love each other and to remain unhated and without scandal all the days of their lives.

The invocation of the saints Serge and Bacchus is interesting, as they are one of Christianity's paired saints, sharing the feast day of October 7. They were fourth-century soldiers in the Roman army, who absented themselves when Emperor Maximian was sacrificing to Jupiter. They were made to wear women's clothing, as brides of Christ, while being paraded publicly. Bacchus was flogged to death and Serge beheaded.

There are seventeen surviving copies of the ceremony from the twelfth century from the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, the Vatican, Paris, and Grottaferrata. After that, the number of surviving copies tapers off, as continuation of same-sex uniting has suffered from our culture's centuries-long intolerance of homosexuality. Same-sex partnering was known in ancient Greece and the early part of the Roman Empire; homosexuality was not just tolerated, it was a part of the society. Concern was more about class differences between partners, that is, whether one was free or a slave, than it was about gender. Plato's Symposium contains a passage on how humans were originally double, that is, double men, double women, and sometimes a mixture of male and female. The gods split them in half, and humans spent the rest of their lives seeking the other half, which meant that mixtures searched for those of the other gender, and same-sex doubles searched for those of the same sex.

The Christian world in the first millennium was not concerned so much with homosexuality as it was with human sexuality in general. Celibacy is a preferred state, and Pauline theology subordinates the matrimonial state of human existence to a life of chastity." That is, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-33 states that "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world." The big tightening of laws in the Christian church regarding marriage occurred in the twelfth century. On the one hand, the church made the laws regarding matrimony the same for rich and poor alike. It is the same set of rules for kings and fishmongers. And it was in the twelfth century that the folk customs and traditions of marriage became a sacrament within the church. On the other hand, in the movement towards uniformity, various types of fornication became outlawed. The Third Lateran Council, in 1179, outlawed sodomy and the love that dare not speak its name, and the penances for transgression became severe.

Even though the church theologians and jurists no less severely censured lending money at interest, sexual intercourse during menstruation, performing manual labor on feast days, or practicing circumcision, these things became accepted while intolerance of homosexuality in parts of the Christian community persists. The irrationality and endurance of the intolerance really defies precise explanation, as does, for example, intolerance of Jews. In fact, there is a correlation in the medieval mind. In medieval Europe, whenever the fever struck to go on a crusade to save Jerusalem from the infidel, it was bad news for Jews and those whose sexuality was considered deviant. The Europeans would attack and persecute the "infidel" at home as well.

Some homophobic medieval literature conflates intolerance with anti-Semitism. For example, one of the popular medieval manuscripts was a Bestiary, which is a book that describes animals (both natural, such as camels and swans, and imaginary, such as unicorns and manticores), their behavior, and their moral lessons for human society. In one thirteenth-century Bestiary (Bodleian Library, Oxford MS Bodley 764, translated from the Latin by Richard Barber), we are told that the hyena lives in graves and devours dead bodies. Also, the hyena has a deviant sexuality, as it can change gender, being sometimes male and sometimes female, making it an unclean beast. As part of the moral, we are told that the children of Israel are like this beast, as they first served God but then sinned through riches, easy living, and worshipping idols. The Bestiary then uses scripture to back its case and quotes Jeremiah 12:8: "Mine heritage is become as the hyena's lair."

The intolerance is old, deep in the culture, and shows that there's still work to be done.