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Tying the knot: quest for same-sex marriage in Australia

By Clarrie Burke - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Same-sex marriage in history

Same-sex marriage dates back to the Roman Empire. Two Roman emperors were considered married: Nero and Elagabalus. Roman statesman Cicero documented the legal rights of an individual within same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage continued in the Roman Empire until Christianity became the official religion. In 342 AD Christian emperors Constanius II and Constans outlawed marriages between partners of the same-sex. Punishment for violating this law was death.


Despite the severe measures to eradicate same-sex marriage, ancient Church liturgical documents record ceremonies called "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th Centuries) and "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th Centuries) are indicative of same-sex marriage. (Female same-sex marriages were rare, as women were accorded less freedom, authority and responsibility in family and social life at the time.)

In late medieval France, the dominance of Christianity was responsible for the suppression of same-sex relationships, including marriage. Yet there is evidence that same-sex marriage existed at the time. For instance, the legal contract of "embrotherment" (a pledge to live together sharing "one bread, one wine and one purse [joint property]") was an early form of sanctioned same-sex marital unions. Like marriage agreements, the "brotherments" had to be sworn before a notary and witnesses.

By the 19th Century, heterosexuality became the standard sexual orientation. Homosexuality was considered a diseased state which, if not treated, had to be suppressed. For this reason same-sex marriage was largely prohibited at the time.

In the 20th Century, as marriage became a shared lifelong partnership of love, sexual satisfaction and equality, differentiated gender roles within marriage began to wane. Historian, Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History, argues that, "... it was heterosexuals who revolutionized marriage to the point where gays and lesbians began to say, 'Oh, this applies to us now,' ... First love, then sexual satisfaction, and then, finally and not until the 1970s, the idea that marriage could be gender-neutral."

As Professor of Philosophy at University of Southern California, Ralph Wedgewood explains, an extension of this change in the social meaning of marriage provides the basis for legitimizing same-sex marriage:

In general, the social meaning of marriage must change whenever such changes are necessary to avoid injustice. The social meaning must now be changed so that it no longer excludes the participation of same-sex couples.


The changing attitude towards normalizing same-sex marriage

Writing for The Punch (Aug. 09) Tony Pitman highlights the key issue at hand here – marriage is not devalued by allowing same-sex marriage:

... to all those who think that allowing same-sex couples to marry somehow devalues the institution of marriage; it doesn't. Marriage remains the same legal institution with all the same rights and responsibilities attached. Nothing changes except that a sector of the population that has traditionally been discriminated against is now allowed to marry. ...

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This is an abridged version of the original article which you can download here.

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About the Author

Clarrie Burke was formerly Associate Professor in Education at QUT. In retirement he has been an executive member of Amnesty International (Queensland) and joint coordinator of the Queensland Schools Amnesty Network.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Clarrie Burke

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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