The current campaign for and against "gay marriage" often ignores the fact that same-sex couples are not a recent phenomenon but in fact have been around for centuries. In his new book Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press; $26.95), cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter explores the public and private lives of historic couples.
"For the last dozen years or so, same-sex marriage has been very much in the spotlight in this country. Numerous books have been written about the topic as a political issue. Plus there have been books about the religious aspect, as well as the legal questions involved. But there has not been much at all written about what I would call the personal dimension of the issue."
"I have been in a same-sex relationship for the last 29 years, and so I know how important that personal piece of the story is. I know that my partner - now my husband - has supported me in some very significant ways, and I also knew that I have supported him in substantive ways, too. So I wanted that personal dimension to be part of the conversation. I am a historian - my PhD is in American history and my previous books have all been of a historical nature - so I started looking into some of the same-sex marriages from the past that I had heard about. When I discovered how rich the details about some of these relationships were, I started writing this book."
Streitmatter defines "outlaw marriage" as "a long-term, committed relationship between either two women or two men. When I say committed I generally mean an emotional commitment. In other words, in each instance, the two people in the outlaw marriage were committed to each other's well-being. That does not necessarily mean they were in a monogamous relationship. The word outlaw speaks to the fact that it was against the law for these couples to engage in sexual activities. The law prohibiting sexual activity between two people of the same sex did not change until 2003, and all of the relationships in the book began long before then."
"The subtitle for my book is The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples. Specifically, I wanted to write about couples who made major contributions to the American culture. The other criteria the couples had to meet involved making a contribution as a couple. In other words, I looked for couples who worked together to make their specific contribution. I eliminated couples in which one person achieved in a major way on his own or her own, while simply being in a relationship with another person of the same sex. That is, in every chapter of the book, I show how the two people made their contribution jointly."
Streitmatter's fifteen historic couples are:
- Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle
- Martha Carey Thomas & Mamie Gwinn
- Ned Warren & John Marshall (whose photo graces the cover)
- Mary Rozet Smith & Jane Addams
- Bessie Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe
- J.C. Leyendecker & Charles Beach
- Alice B. Toklas & Gertrude Stein
- Janet Flanner & Solita Solano
- Greta Garbo & Mercedes de Acosta
- Aaron Copland & Victor Kraft.
- Frank Merlo & Tennessee Williams
- James Baldwin & Lucien Happersberger
- Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns
- Ismail Merchant & James Ivory
- Frances Clayton & Audre Lorde
Some of the outlaw couples, like Stein and Toklas or Merchant and Ivory, are well-known. In some of the other cases, only one of the partners is famous.
According to Streitmatter, "one of the parts of doing the research for the book that I really loved was digging into the details of the outlaw marriages to figure out exactly how the partners supported each other. Frankly, it was pretty easy to see how, for instance, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory supported each other because Ismail was the producer of the couple's films and James was the director."
"It was a lot trickier - though ultimately more gratifying - to tease out how somebody like Mercedes de Acosta contributed to the achievements generally credited to Greta Garbo. What I discovered, with that particular couple, was that Mercedes served as Greta's unofficial tutor," he said.
"Greta came from very humble beginnings. Her father was a street cleaner in Stockholm, Sweden. But then she was discovered by Louis B. Meyer and brought to Hollywood to star in movies for MGM. Mercedes, by contrast, was born into a very wealthy and socially prominent New York family. It was very fortuitous for Greta, then, when she met and became romantically involved with Mercedes in 1931. The women started spending all their free time together, and so Mercedes helped Greta learn how to speak and dress properly. Mercedes even decorated Greta's house so it was in keeping with the style appropriate for Hollywood royalty. Frankly, I loved figuring all that out and then describing it in the book."
Streitmatter's favorite couple was Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. "When I started the book, I knew about Tennessee because he is one of America's most admired playwrights, but I had never heard about Frank. And yet, what I discovered is that Tennessee probably would never have written some of his greatest plays if it had not been for Frank, even though he was a truck driver with just a minimal education," he said.
"Williams and Merlo met in 1947 in a bar in Provincetown, and they had sex on the dunes that same night. Then they went their separate ways. During the next year Tennessee wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, which won the Pulitzer Prize. But he then entered what became a dramatic downward spiral. He was exhausted, so he drank huge quantities of alcohol and took lots and lots of pills - trying to make himself feel better. He also had sex with all kinds of different men."
"Finally, in the summer of 1948, he went back to New York where he ran into Frank. Within a matter of weeks, the two men were living together in Tennessee's apartment. And once Frank moved in, he became much more than just a lover, as he pretty much brought order to Tennessee's chaotic life," according to Streitmatter. "Frank cooked their meals and cleaned the apartment and made sure Tennessee showed up for appointments. Even more important, Frank single-handedly weaned Tennessee off the alcohol and other drugs. And he also put an end to the playwright's casual sex - Frank insisted on being monogamous."
"Soon Tennessee started writing again. Indeed, it was not long after Frank entered his life that Tennessee wrote what became one of his best plays - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - that won him his second Pulitzer Prize. Still later, while he and Frank were together, he wrote several other major works, including The Night of the Iguana and Sweet Bird of Youth. A very good case can be made that Tennessee would never have written any of those plays if it had not been for Frank Merlo cleaning up his act."
Streitmatter ends Outlaw Marriages with a touching description of his own relationship with his husband, Tom Grooms. Though Streitmatter was able to marry his husband in the District of Columbia, he realizes that most same-sex relationships in America are still outlawed. Still, there is a future for same-sex marriage in America, says Streitmatter.
"President Obama's recent statement in support of marriage equality was the tipping point. Public opinion has been rapidly shifting in favor of marriage equality, and young people, in particular, are very supportive. Exactly when it is going to happen is hard to say because it may come down to a vote by the nine justices on the Supreme Court. But there is no turning back now. It is going to happen."