African cultures

Required Reading: Equal Protection Edition

Contemplation of Justice

This is pretty much required reading. William N. Eskridge Jr., of Yale Law School, offers an opinion in favor of Amendment XIV recognition of same-sex marriage in Ohio. The middle of the article stands out:

Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “This definition has been with us for millennia. It’s very difficult for the court to say, oh well, we know better.” Justice Samuel Alito asked: “How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the 20th century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?”

All of the justices and counsel addressing this point accepted the premise that no culture had ever recognized same-sex marriage. That premise is incorrect.

First- and second-century historians Suetonius and Tacitus (disapprovingly) documented official same-sex marriages in imperial Rome. Some modern historians have found plausible evidence of such marriages among Egyptians, Canaanites and Hittites and on islands in ancient Greece. So it is not right to say that the Western tradition had never entertained marriages between people of the same sex until the 20th century.

The evidence is overwhelming for non-Western cultures. In their 1951 book “Patterns of Sexual Behavior,” anthropologists Clellan Ford and Frank Beach surveyed 191 world cultures and found many examples of same-sex intimacy occurring “within the framework of courtship and marriage.” They were mainly referring to “berdache” marriages, in which a man would marry another man who performed domestic duties or a woman would marry a woman who worked outside the home. Researchers have demonstrated that a majority of Native American tribes (as well as many tribal people elsewhere in the world) have recognized such marriages at points in their histories.

Anthropologists have also documented the phenomena of “woman marriage” in African societies, in which a wealthy woman marries another woman and then secures her impregnation, thereby generating heirs. Anthropologist Denise O’Brien reports that such marriages have been recognized in more than 30 African cultures.

There are other examples (some more equivocal), but these show that there has been no universal definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples.

To the one, it should be noted that Prof. Eskridge also authored an amicus brief in support of the Obergefell petitioners on the question of the Fourteenth. And while the interest of amici might be a bit thin, the brief still makes for excellent reading.

To the other, we should remember what is at stake: Ohio is trying to unmarry a dead man.

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Eskridge Jr., William N. “The 14th Amendment should cover same-sex marriage in Ohio”. The Washington Post. 19 June 2015.

Eskridge Jr., William N. and Ilya Shapiro. “Brief of Amici Curiae CATO Institute, William N. Eskridge Jr., and Steven Calabresi in Support of Petitioners”. Supreme Court of the United States. 6 March 2015.