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Same sex marriage in the non-European world

Same sex marriage is a controversial issue in the United States. This is hardly surprising, considering that it had stirred much debate in other Western countries prior to gaining acceptance in Scandinavia and Canada. But the fact is, same sex marriage is not new to the 20th or 21st century, nor is it unique to the Western world. Various cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Asia had, or still have the custom of same sex marriage. This is not to say that same-sex marriages in one society are equivalent to, or should serve as models for, same-sex marriages in another.

Marriages, same-sex or otherwise, were undertaken for very different reasons in different times and places. For example, in old Europe, marriages were made for dynastic reasons - to form alliances between families and for the production of heirs. Today Europeans think differently - people prefer to marry for 'love', and some forgo marriage altogether. Likewise, in some cultures in pre-modern and modern Africa, same-sex marriages as well as opposite-sex marriages were and are often conducted out of family duty (e.g. for purposes of inheritance), and not so much motivated by 'love', or 'sexual orientation'. [Not that there is anything inherently wrong or right about 'loveless' marriages - they were the norm most of the world through most of history, and are still popular today.]

Anyway, it seems that same-sex marriages in a certain culture are more similar to opposite-sex marriages in the same culture than to same-sex marriage in another culture. Americans can talk about the clash in cultural values between those Americans who support same sex marriage and those who don't, but the fact remains that both camps have very similar ideas of what marriage is about (romance, love, individual choice etc) compared to say, the traditional views of the Nuer of South Africa, for whom same-sex marriage is not uncommon. Both traditional same-sex and opposite-sex marriage among the Nuer were similarly motivated by the duty of carrying on the family name.

Regardless of what one's views on same-sex marriage are, it should be known that Westerners are not 'trail-blazers' with regards to recognizing same-sex marriages. Traditional non-European societies have acknowledged and formalized same-sex unions in the past and some continue to do so today.

Traditional same-sex marriage in Africa

Woman-woman marriage has been documented in more than 30 African populations, including the Yoruba and Ibo of West Africa, the Nuer of Sudan, the Lovedu, Zulu and Sotho of South Africa, and the Kikuyu and Nandi of East Africa.1 Typically, such arrangements involved two women undergoing formal marriage rites; the requisite bride price is paid by one party as in a heterosexual marriage. The woman who pays the bride price for the other woman becomes the sociological 'husband'. The couple may have children with the help of a 'sperm donor', who is a male kinsman or friend of the female husband, or a man of the wife's own choosing, depending on the customs of the community. The female husband is the sociological father of any resulting offspring. The children belong to her lineage, not to their biological father's.2

Formalized, socially-recognized relations between two men also exist in Africa. Among the Zande (located in southwestern Sudan, northeastern Congo, and the Central African Republic), a male warrior could marry a teenage boy by paying bridewealth to the boy's parents. The man addressed the boy-wife's parents as his in-laws, and performed services for them as befitted a son-in-law. Unlike women-women marriages, man-boy marriages end when the boy comes of age. The former boy-wife can now take his own boy wives, and his former husband can marry another boy-wife.3

Same sex marriages among indigenous North Americans

Many indigenous societies in the Americas supported alternative gender roles for both biological men and women. These identities have been termed 3rd and 4th genders (though some cultures recognized up to 6 genders) and are usually coupled with supernatural powers and shamanistic roles. These gender-bending social roles sometimes begin in childhood preferences for dress and work roles.4 Among the Mohave, men have married alyha (biological males who are officially initiated into a 'female' gender role) and women have married hwame (the female equivalent of alyha).5

Same-sex marriage in pre-modern China

Hu Pu'an records the phenomenon of two-women commitment ceremonies in "A Record of China's Customs: Guangdong": Within the Golden Orchid women's societies, if two women "have intentions" towards each other, one of them would prepare peanut candy, dates and other goods as a formal gift to show her intent. If the other woman accepts the gift, she is now bound by honor to her suitor. If she refuses the gift, it indicates a rejection of the proposal. A contract-signing ceremony follows the acceptance and is usually attended by a group of friends who celebrate by drinking through the night. After the contract is completed, the two women "become like each other's shadows in sitting, lying down, rising, and living". If one party breaks the oath, the group of women will hold her accountable and subject her to "a hundred humiliations", "for such is their custom". 6

In the neighboring province of Fujian, same-sex marriages between males were also recognized. Ming dynasty literati Shen Defu writes in "Miscellaneous musings from the Humble Broom Book Room" (Bizhouzhai Yutan):

The Fujianese take male-on-male passion very seriously. Men from all strata of society form partnerships within their own social classes. The older man is the "sworn older brother", and the younger man is the "sworn younger brother". When the "older brother" goes to the home of his "younger brother", the parents of the "younger brother" treat him like a son-in-law. From henceforth, any living costs or heterosexual marriage expenses of the "younger brother" will be paid by the "older brother". Those who love each other ... also sleep together as spouses.7

Similar to the Zande model in Central Africa, Fujian boy-marriages involved a man paying bridewealth to a teenage boy's parents, and the union typically ended when the boy came of age, though there were exceptions. Sometimes same-sex couples adopted and raised children.8

Past and Present

The purpose of these examples is not to argue for or against same-sex marriage. Not all old traditions should be revived, but not all old traditions should be abandoned either. It is up to each society to decide how to move forward, but there is something to be said for knowing our past and for knowing how people in other parts of the world view the same issue.


  1. Joseph M. Carrier and Stephen O. Murray, "Woman-woman marriage in Africa", Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, p255

    Kottak, pp 292,281
  2. Carrier and Murray, "Woman-woman marriage in Africa", Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, p256-257
  3. Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, p27
  4. Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America, p139
  5. Roscoe, Changing Ones: Thrid and Fourth Genders in Native North America, p140-141
  6. The Golden Orchid Oath
  7. The Long History of Same-sex love (Thousand Dragons web)
  8. Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, p132