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The headline says it all. In the 1950s, lesbians were “freaks.” This was especially true of butch women who adopted a masculine working-class style. Their style alone communicated volumes: I will not conform to society’s rules; I will not be a “proper” woman; I am a sexually desiring being, and my desire is directed toward women, especially feminine women.

When I first uncovered this image, I was stunned. It is rare to see photographs from this period. Few working-class women had cameras, few could afford to take photos, and most moved so often that photos tended to get lost, misplaced, or thrown out.

But even more than that, I was surprised to learn that these women, whom historians have always characterized as rebels, as heterosexual refuseniks, as the political predecessors to the lesbian and feminist liberationists who denounced marriage and romance as major sources of women’s oppression, got married. Not only that, they did so in the most conventional of ways. As the image of Ivy and Gerry shows, they wore conventional wedding attire. My research is showing that this was only the beginning. Women arranged for an officiant – sometimes a friend, and sometimes a Christian minister sympathetic to same-sex lovers – and exchanged heartfelt vows. Afterwards, many couples celebrated with a multi-tier wedding cake. There was no marriage license, of course, but what did that matter?

How does lesbian marriage fit with the image historians have constructed of butch and fem culture as a rebel culture? Was marriage in this case an act of resistance against heterosexual norms or was it, as some queer critics of today’s marriage equality movement argue, conformist and conservative?

I have been exploring this question in archives and interviews with people who married in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and found that men engaged in the same practice. I have learned that then, as now, “homosexual marriage” was a topic of heated debate among gays and lesbians. Some wondered why anyone would want to give up the freedom from life-long monogamy that lesbians and gays enjoyed. Others thought that such practices made homosexuals look ridiculous and undermined any hope of winning civil rights.

From Outlaws to In-Laws explores the history of same-sex marriage in the United States from the 1950s up to the present-day marriage equality movement. Some have argued that weddings in the 1960s and 1970s were acts of resistance and acts of conformity, but after two years of reflecting on my research findings, I suggest that “resistance” as a category of analysis is not particularly useful in understanding marriage as a cultural practice among lesbians and gays. Without abandoning an understanding of marriage as a political institution, in From Outlaws to In-Laws I want to explore the way love, pleasure, desire and affection are given expression, and how these feelings and their public expression contribute to forming and building community.

If you have a story to share about same-sex marriage before 1980, get in touch with me. I am still collecting histories and artifacts for this project. And if you have a question or comment, I hope you’ll share it below. Thanks for reading, and please share this blog with your friends.

originally from elisechenier@dreamdwidth, crossposted to outlawstoinlaws@dreamwidth, a community for sharing and discussing same-sex marriage before 1980.

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