Mar 292013
Edward Perry Warren and John Marshall, 1895

Now that we’re examining gay marriage through the lens of the law, it’s beginning to appear — quite unfortunately — as if the Supreme Court isn’t married to the idea of sweeping federal approval after all. But fret not! The Court’s role has always been more of a tortoise than a hare in our race towards civil rights, so the fact that it’s considering the appeal gives the majority of Americans pause to celebrate.

While the Court mulls, however, we’d like to clear up some misunderstanding. Take the “recent” institution of gay marriage, as Justice Samuel Alito seems bent on calling it. Alito is trying to dissuade any major ruling on the grounds that evidence on the effects of same-sex marriage is too little, too soon: “You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones and the internet?” he asked. “We do not have the ability to see the future.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to. We mere humans may not wear the robes of soothsayers (or Justices, for that matter), Mr. Alito, but we do have access to local libraries and the benefit of hindsight. While, yes, the formal institution of gay marriage is recent, author Rodger Streitmatter reminds us that gay folks have been resourcefully affirming their own versions of marriage for centuries. In fact, they’ve found ways of making it work with or without our questionably-gay-Uncle Sam’s nodding approval.

The effects these couples have had on society — from Nobel Peace prizes to the advancement of the arts — won’t suddenly change because state governments have given their blessing. No, the “effects” of same-sex coupling is not recent at all. Moreover, the “effects” are resoundingly positive. Streitmatter’s biography, Outlaw Marriages, out in paperback on May 7, explores the lives of ten same-sex couples, in which at least one person in each pairing has historically advanced American culture, particularly due to the help of their significant other. Below are a few couples Justice Samuel Alito could learn some history lessons from. Whether or not they meant to, they ended up proving love need not answer to law.

Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle (1865-1892)

The rugged, Civil War veteran Peter Doyle was a conductor for a D.C. streetcar when he fell for the wispy-faced poet Walt Whitman. Different in every way possible — forty-five years older, four inches taller, and a Union supporter to Doyle’s Confederate leanings — Whitman was similarly smitten with Doyle, and the two became inseparable. “Oh Captain! My Captain!,” the famed ode to Abraham Lincoln’s death, and a Whitman poem so historically important it’s not unlikely every Supreme Court Justice knows by heart, was in part inspired by Whitman’s hubby, Mr. Doyle. What’s more, Whitman’s magnum opus, The Leaves of Grass, would not be the same if it weren’t for Doyle’s loving influence in the background.

Ned Warren & John Marshall (1884-1927)

The Metropolitan Museum or Art is a symbol of human tradition and cultural cohesion, key principles the Justices uphold. But without Ned Warren and John Marshall, the adorably dapper puppy-holders in the photo above, the antiquities section of the Museum would be as naked as the statue of David. John Marshall and Ned Warren began their romantic relationship in 1884, quickly becoming kings of art collecting, specifically of Greek and Roman antiquities. They then shipped their finds to the front steps of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Met. The American art scene is deeply indebted to their work, which was hinged on each other’s loving dependence. After Marshall died, Warren could go on no longer. They are buried together in Tuscany, Italy. Atop their tombstone sits a simple Grecian urn, a silent testimony to the lives they shared.

Mary Rozet Smith & Jane Addams (1891-1934)

Name any social issue, and if Jane Addams were alive today, she’d be there with a megaphone, a picket, and some snack bars for the long-haul. The first American woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Addams founded Hull House in 1889 with the then uncommon aim of asking upper-class women to effect change in impoverished neighborhoods. Suffering from a slew of physical health issues, her lifelong lover, Mary Rozet Smith, was always there to aid Jane in her work, ensuring she didn’t overexert herself in the process. International travel being as demanding as it was in 1896, Mary caved in to Jane’s demands to meet Leo Tolstoy in Russia to talk about education reform, on the one condition Mary could accompany her on the dangerous voyage. Even in her later years, Addams was an outspoken activist, controversially criticizing America’s capital punishment system. Mary, Jane’s moral compass, passed away quietly one night in 1934. Jane couldn’t recover from the loss, and died one year later.

As you can plainly see, these relationships are far older than “cell phones” or the “internet.” Enough time has passed to assuage any fears of the adverse effects of same-sex couples. The newspapers that covered their deaths – The New York Times, The Washington Post – mentioned nothing of the intimate relationships they shared with their same-sex partners, and nothing of the other halves that made them whole. Rodger Streitmatter, then, sheds important light on a hidden history. Justice Alito doesn’t need to look into the future to see the merits of same-sex marriage, he just needs to look a little harder into the past.




Joe Muscolino

Outlaw Marriages: SCOTUS Forgets Gay Couples in History | Biography | Biographile