Same-sex marriages have been debated hotly lately. In most of the United States, they are currently illegal in all but a few states, with Massachusetts being the only one allowing them. New Jersey just legalized civil unions, in which the partners get many of the same rights as married couples (and I suppose the added tax rate), and court ruling in Iowa said that not allowing same sex couples to marry violated the state constitution. That ruling is currently on hold, but what about the history of the idea?
The idea of unions between people of the same sex is a bit complex, but it is by no means news as many people would have you believe. Seventeenth Century China, some countries in Ninteenth Century Africa allowed the civil forms and marriages between two men were common in Native American cultures. Whether or not the marriages included a homosexual relationship or not is not clear.
Plato, although he did not advocate marriage between two people of the same gender, did argue for what form relationships should take in a speech he wrote in which he was commenting on the myth of Aristophanes. The myth proposes that humans used to each have two heads, four arms, four legs, and feet and there were three sexes. One composed of two men, another composed of two women and another half-man, half-woman gender. Eventually Zeus decided to punish the humans for misbehavior and cut each person into two different people. Since then, each person goes around looking for the other half of his original person, what we would term today as a soul mate.
John Boswell, a professor at Yale University has done vigorous research into the issue on same sex unions as they were viewed in Early Christian Europe. His book includes prayers from official sources that would allow for people of the same gender to enter into some kind of bond. His first book, problematic relations between male homosexuals and the Christian church. His Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, was published in 1980. The intent of the passages Boswell cited was not to enter into matrimony, but perhaps a more formal and less messy version of what we today would call becoming blood brothers.
The debate will likely continue, but as for moral considerations of what makes up a family and what constitutes marriage, it seems that Americans are hardly the first to wonder about the exact definitions.