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The First Evidence of Recognized Same-Sex Relationships is 4,500 Years Old


(Photo: Michael Ruiz)

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to marriage, and ordered that same-sex marriages be recognized in all 50 states in the country.

This is a first in U.S. history—but far from a first in the history of the world. In fact, one of the oldest objects documenting a same-sex relationship looks something like this:

 
Gilgamesh tablet (Image: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP/Wikimedia)

That’s one of tablets that tells the story of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest written stories in the world. As William N. Eskridge, Jr., writes in the Virginia Law Review:

The epic describes the relationship between Gilgamesh, the great powerful ruler of Uruk, and Enkidu, a male created by the gods to divert Gilgamesh from wreaking havoc in the world. Gilgamesh and Enkidu become comrades, friends, and probably lovers before Enkidu dies at the hands of the fates.

Even before the time that some of the oldest versions of Gilgamesh (which, like the Bible, coalesced into one text over time) were being written down, in Egypt, two men were buried together in a tomb where bas-reliefs showed two men touching, embracing—in some sort of committed romantic relationship.

In his dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that marriage is “a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs,” so that across civilizations, marriage has “referred to only one relationship: the union of a man and a woman.”

But the world is a varied place, and over the millennia of human existence, marriage has meant more than that.

In Kenya, it’s traditional in the Nandi tribe for women to marry women. In northeastern Brazil, some women would take on the roles of men and marry other women. Eskridge describes evidence that marriage between men was practiced during the Yuan and Ming dynasties in China, from the 13th to 17th centuries. Among Chukchi people, living in Siberian, male religious leaders would sometimes marry other men: “The marriage is performed with the usual rites, and I must say that it forms a quite solid union, which often lasts till the death of one of the parties,” one Russian writer reported. And in America, before Europeans settled here, people across the Plains and the Southwest would cross gender boundaries and marry people of their own sex.

These are just a few examples of how civilizations around the world have been open, at times throughout history, to recognizing romantic relationships besides the ones between men and women.