Hundreds of years ago, in southern China, villages celebrated the marriages of two women. These same couples often welcomed young orphaned girls into their homes and raised them as their children.
History shows us that in Guangdong, China, same-sex families were once a thriving part of the community. The Golden Orchid Society was a group of women who promised not to have sexual relations with men. Women chose to join the society for lots of different reasons, one of which was a desire to marry a woman. Though the society gained a large following during the late Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1911, it may have started much earlier.
The courtship and marriage of two women in the Golden Orchid Society was similar to other couples in China at the time. If a woman wanted to marry another woman, she would offer the woman and her family gifts, such as tea and wedding cakes. If the woman accepted the presents, then the couple was engaged. For the wedding ceremony, the women probably wore traditional red Chinese wedding veils and changed their hairstyle from long braids, which were worn by single women, to buns, which were worn by married women. During the actual ceremony, the couple not only promised to be faithful to each other, but also honored their ancestors and parents.
Once married, the women lived together and cared for each other and their families. In a journal written in 1937, a traveler describes “two women [who] dwell together, always existing as if they were one woman. They are as close as a stalk of grain coming through a stone.”
Custom also allowed the couple to adopt and raise orphaned and abandoned girls. These girls were loved by their mothers, as well as by their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
In most cases, everyone lived happily. But sometimes, things did not work out for the couple. Perhaps they would fall out of love. Or the parents of one woman would try to get her to marry the man they had chosen to be her husband when she was a little girl, according to the tradition of arranged marriage.
If a woman in the Golden Orchid Society were to leave her wife or be unfaithful, then the society members would publicly shame her. The public humiliation not only hurt the woman, but also her family. The fear of this humiliation was so strong, that even extended families, which may not have originally supported same-sex marriage, would often encourage the women to live happily together.
In ancient China, same-sex marriage was also understood by one of the major religions. The Buddhist religion believes in reincarnation, which is the idea that when someone dies, his or her spirit returns to the world in a new body, as another person or animal. Buddhists also believe that once a couple is married, they are destined to love and marry each other again in each of their lives. Therefore, if a man and woman are married in one life, and then come back in their next life as two women, they are destined to marry again as two women. Since Buddhism, offered a reasonable explanation for same-sex marriages, many people accepted them.
Clearly, in parts of ancient China, love between women and their ability to affectionately raise children was understood and acknowledged. Same-sex families thrived then, as they do today.
Do you want to change the laws so that same sex couples can get married in the United States today?
Write a letter to the editor of your paper or to your Congresspersons. Tell them about the Golden Orchid Society and why legalizing same- sex marriage is important to you.
For more ideas and more information about same-sex marriage in the United States, see Marina Gatto’s article “What Does Marriage Mean to My Family?”