Charity and Sylvia – The 200-Year-Old Same-Sex Marriage

Rachel Hope Cleves

The legalization of same-sex marriage may be brand new to American history, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything unique.

Rachel Hope Cleves, a professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, has been studying the love story of two seemingly ordinary women: Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. After meeting in Vermont in the late 1700s, the women were “inseparable” and essentially lived as wife and wife for four decades.

In 2014, at the cusp of the Defense of Marriage Act being overturned in the United States, Cleves published “Charity and Sylvia” — a reminder that LGBT people are nothing new to history.

When did you first learn about Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake?

I first learned about Charity and Sylvia in the course of researching my first book, “The Reign of Terror in America.” I was reading the letters of Charity Bryant’s nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, and I came across his account of visiting his aunts in Weybridge, Vermont, where they lived.

What interested you about them?

Bryant described his aunts’ relationship in language that echoed the familiar marriage ceremony rites from the Book of Common Prayer — for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. I was immediately struck by Bryant’s description because I’d never heard of any relationships between same-sex partners during the first half of the 19th century that were so explicitly likened to a marriage. I immediately became curious about how Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake’s marriage worked: how did they meet, how did they form their relationship, what did their family and friends make of it?

You wrote “Charity and Sylvia” in 2014, why was it important to you to tell their story?

When I began working on the book, a lot of opponents to same-sex marriage were using history as a weapon against equal marriage rights. They argued that legitimizing same-sex marriage contravened countless millennia of history. I thought it was vital to challenge this false claim and show how same-sex couples found ways to marry in the past, and to be accepted and valued by their communities and families.

What are people’s reactions to hearing about a same-sex couple 200 years ago?

A mix of surprise and affirmation. People are surprised because our myth of the past is that is was impossible to live in an open loving same-sex partnership until modern times. But, people also have a deep belief that there must have been people like themselves in the past, and that brings the sense of affirmation that many readers have expressed to me after learning about Charity and Sylvia.

 Why are stories like Bryant and Drake’s important today?

I think that claims about the newness of LGBTQ people and lives is an ideological instrument used by reactionaries to enforce a certain narrow vision of normal sex and gender. The truth is that the past is filled with examples of people of diverse genders and sexualities, who oftentimes experienced persecution or hostility, but who also found ways to live and flourish. Excluding the stories of diverse genders and sexualities from the past is a way to silence such expressions in the present and future. It’s important that we tell a more inclusive story of the past in order to open and affirm possibilities for people living in the present and in the future.


Originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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