Book Club: Outlaw Marriages

Sally Ride, the famous astronaut who passed away in July from pancreatic cancer, left an unexpected gift to America’s youth. In her obituary, it was revealed that Ride, the first American woman to travel into outer space, had been in a committed, same-sex relationship for 27 years with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy. Having quietly come out, she now serves as an important, high-profile role model for LGBTQ youth.

Although it became public knowledge too recently to be included, Ride’s story mirrors those found in a recently published collective biography by Rodger StreitmatterOutlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press, 2012) visits the topic of same-sex marriage in the United States, covering 140 years of history in 15 marriages, from 1865 to 2005.

Marriage practices have taken many forms across time and across cultures.

Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., profiles the marriages of luminaries ranging from poet Walt Whitman to screen star Greta Garbo, bringing his subjects to life in stories that can be fascinating, poignant, and even humorous. The 15 marriages he chronicles were “outlaw marriages,” because “each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.”

Although still not legally sanctioned in most states, support for same-sex marriage has risen steadily in recent years, and 2010 marked the first year that an opinion poll showed majority support for same-sex marriage. Additionally, same-sex marriage rights saw historic victories in last month’s election, winning approval by popular vote in Maryland, Maine, and Washington. Although Streitmatter treats the topic of same-sex marriage in plain prose that avoids polemics, he writes about the past with his eyes on the present. The subjects he chose make a persuasive argument for recognizing how important same-sex couples have been to our history and culture. It would be difficult even for someone opposed to same-sex marriage to discount the contributions of someone like Janet Flanner, whose work in journalism exposed the Nazi plunder of millions of dollars worth of art from European Jews. Her marriage to a colleague, Solita Solano, is the subject of the eighth chapter. Also difficult to ignore is the influence Aaron Copland had on American music. His marriage to violinist Victor Kraft is the subject of the tenth chapter.

The 15 marriages Streitmatter profiles were not legally recognized — and readers can speculate whether the couples themselves considered themselves married — but the details he shares make it clear that they had all the qualities of marriages. They lasted through many years and often many difficulties. The couples shared and managed their incomes and resources together (even if some had to maintain separate residences for the sake of secrecy or other imperatives). The relationships often brought out the best in one or both spouses. James Baldwin found the support he needed to write his best books during his marriage to Lucien Happersberger, and Elsie de Wolfe founded the field of interior design with the encouragement of her partner Bessie Marbury. At the same time, Streitmatter doesn’t gloss over the truth. He writes honestly about “infidelity, deceit, and betrayal” on the occasions they occurred, explaining in the prologue that “they’re the realities that often confront any long-term relationship, gay or straight.”

Marriage practices have taken many forms across time and across cultures. For the Anglo-Saxons and neighboring tribal societies, the wishes of the couple to be were a secondary consideration, since their families arranged their marriages for diplomatic, economic, and political purposes. In colonial America, by contrast, a woman and man could often declare they were married without any civil or religious ceremony, after a courtship largely of their own will. Marriage has been such an evolving and diverse practice that, as University of Houston history professor Steven Mintz put it, “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands [and say] ‘When and where?’”

Despite the fluid and adaptable definition marriage has had, for the most part it never left room for the inclusion of same-sex marriage during the 140 years Streitmatter covers in his book. His subjects’ marriages were thus off the legal record and usually secret to all but the couples’ closest friends and relatives. Their marriages, since they typically never became public knowledge until one spouse’s passing — much like Sally Ride’s relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy — were not always well known and might surprise some readers. It’s also likely that readers will find themselves getting to know personalities they otherwise would have never had the impetus to discover — and will appreciate Streitmatter’s book for providing that impetus. Streitmatter’s book gives same-sex marriages the place they deserve in history and will hopefully help them garner the acceptance they deserve today and in the future.

3 thoughts on “Book Club: Outlaw Marriages

  1. Hey Matt,

    Where in the world did you get this information ??? Lucien Happersberger was never “married” to James Baldwin, what a joke ! How can you write stuff like that ? This is insulting to Lucien’s memory.


    • Marc, you might want to consider rereading what I wrote. Here’s a germane excerpt: “The 15 marriages Streitmatter profiles were not legally recognized — and readers can speculate whether the couples themselves considered themselves married — but the details he shares make it clear that they had all the qualities of marriages.” As for where I got the information, perhaps you also missed the fact that this is a book review; and I provided links for any information I culled from other sources.

      Sorry if I sound impolitic in my reply, but I thought I’d respond in kind to yours.

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