Queer history

Charity and Sylvia

This looks like a good book: Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleeves. It tells the story of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake who lived in Vermont in the early 1800s. Their community recognized them as a couple but accepted them because the women were modest and active members in the community’s social and religious life.  Charity and Sylvia lived during the Second Great Awakening and both experienced a spiritual rebirth. They often struggled with the sexual nature of their attachment because it was considered a sin but viewed the struggle itself as the way of earning God’s love. At age 54, Sylvia wrote in her diary: “31 years since I left my mother’s house and commenc’d serving in company with Dear Miss B. Sin mars all earthly bliss, and no common sinner have I been.”

“Another Female Husband”

Just finished an interesting article, “‘What, Another Female Husband?’: The Prehistory of Same-Sex Marriage in America” by Rachel Hope Cleaves (full citation below). Cleaves provides an overview of the many examples of same-sex marriages in American history, which disprove the recent assertions that same-sex marriage represents “a radical break from the past.” Cleaves argues that the history of these unions has been erased by what she terms the “logic of impossibility.” Whenever contemporaries described these marriages, they always used language that made the marriage sound both unique and impossible–“queer,” “extraordinary,” “truth is stranger than fiction,” or by putting ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ in quotation marks. This had the effect of both denying the marriage legitimacy and also erasing past examples of such relationships by making it seem like this was the first time it had occurred.

Interestingly, the legal status of same-sex marriages was also up for debate. In 1923 in Chicago a male cross-dresser, Fred Thompson/Frances Carrick was arrested in a murder investigation. When his/her husband, Frank Carrick, was called to testify, “the state objected that he could not give testimony on behalf of his spouse.” The judge ruled in favor of the state, saying that “‘the fact that Thompson was a man did not affect his status as a wife, insofar as interpretation of the law is concerned.'” But when the New York Times reported the decision, they still put ‘husband’ in quotes.


Rachel Hope Cleaves, “‘What, Another Female Husband?’: The Prehistory of Same-Sex Marriage in America,” The Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (March 2015): 1055-1081