Husband? Wife? What’s In a Name?

Getting married and calling oneself married – are they different things, or just two sides of the same coin? My research on same-sex marriages in the 50s, 60s and 70s is driven by a desire to understand what draws people to the act of saying “I do,” so I am most interested in wedding ceremonies such as this one between Millie and Jean Carbollo in 1977.

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This week’s archival adventures at the New York Public Library have turned up two interesting pieces of evidence that show gay male couples sometimes referred to themselves as married, and that this practice changed over time. But not in the way we might expect.

The first example is from a 1964 ’zine called The Lavender Lexicon: Dictionary of Gay Words Phrases, in which “husband” and “wife” appear as separate entries.

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The second piece of evidence comes from a 1977 survey of gay male sexuality undertaken by Karla Jay and Allen Young. Much of the 18-page questionnaire focuses on sexual practices and tastes, starting from when, where and how often one has sex, to what type of sex one enjoys most, what kinds of toys and clothing are a turn on, to how often, if ever, one participates in acts that include dildos, third (or more) parties, or animals. Even the section on relationships focuses largely on how one meets sexual partners and the sexual parameters of the relationship, such as whether one prefers monogamy or non-monogamy.

Jay and Allen do, however, ask if one considers oneself married, if one has ever had a “gay wedding ceremony,” and, whether the answer was yes or no, was one strongly in favor, strong opposed, or somewhere in between on the question of gay marriage. They also ask respondents if they “role play,” and among the choices of roles are “husband and wife.”

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In 1964 only the “excessively effeminate” (a derogatory comment, to be sure) were likely to use the term “husband.” Jay and Allen’s “Sexual Survey” suggests that thirteen years later the term may have been more, not less, common, despite the critique of traditional marriage launched by gay liberationists. (The Sexual Survey findings were published in 1979.)

Calling oneself married and using the terms husband and wife to refer to your same-sex partner are not the same as having a wedding ceremony, but it is part of the history of how at least some lesbians and gay men gave meaning to their relationships at a time when their relationships were considered dangerous, immoral, and degenerate.

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