The Coalition government is proposing to change the law for England and Wales to allow same-sex couples to marry in a civil ceremony. If approved, this would be a significant step in the recognition of the equal status of gay and lesbian relationships.
So would this be the latest landmark in a long journey from, say, Victorian times, when, we might assume, same-sex relationships equivalent to marriage were regarded as inconceivable or demonised? In fact, suggests Professor Alison Oram of Leeds Metropolitan University, the story is more subtle.
Her research, including her book Her Husband Was a Woman!, has focused on instances of gender-crossing by women, particularly instances between 1910 and 1960 where women adopted masculine guises as part of what appeared to be married couples. Such cases were regularly reported in popular newspapers such as the News of the World with more sympathy than might have been expected.
One case in 1912, headlined ‘Woman as Husband. Amazing Romance of Two Chiswick Girls’, related how Adelaide Dallamore had passed herself off as a man among male workmates, and lived an organised home life with her ‘wife’. “We never quarrelled once”, Adelaide was quoted as saying. “We were a sort of model couple.”
Such ‘masquerading’ by women, as it was termed, could be seen, says Alison Oram, as both “disruptive and respectable at the same time”. There was a sensational aspect, in the way that, for example, such couples might dupe the civil or church authorities. Yet relationships involving a ‘female husband’, though reported with some humour, were not seen as sexually deviant and were “often idealised in immensely positive terms as respectable and honourable”.
The sexual aspect of such relationships was downplayed – indeed, there was little or no public vocabulary then to describe sexual relationships between women. Lesbianism as a sexual practice was, Oram notes, “extremely well hidden” from newspaper readers before the First World War. Yet there is evidence in other historical research that “long-term marital-like relationships between women were accepted in Victorian bourgeois circles, and in some respects the cross-dressing female marriage was seen as a working-class parallel”.
So the idea of same-sex marriage is not as historically novel as we might think. Yet there has also been determined resistance to the idea along the way. As sexual identities became more free-flowing and openly discussed from the 1930s, a kind of rearguard action was begun by those wanting to privilege heterosexual relationships, even as steps were taken to decriminalise gay sexual activity and give gay relationships more status.
When a relaxation of cultural restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality was announced by the Lord Chamberlain in 1958, he made clear that “violently pro-homosexual” plays would still be banned, as would “embraces between males”. As a 1967 Act was passed decriminalising private homosexual activities, one of its parliamentary sponsors, Lord Arran, stated that “while there may be nothing bad about being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good”.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org