If I told you a same-sex marriage existed in early 19th-century America, would you believe me? Well, this week, you won’t be taking just my word for it, but also that of Rachel Cleves. A professor of History at the University of Victoria and author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, Cleves has spent years uncovering the details of Charity and Sylvia’s story, a union that thrived over 200 years before we won the fight for marriage equality in America.
Cleves began our conversation by describing how she discovered Charity and Sylvia’s story. “In the summer of 2004, I took a day trip to Middlebury, Vermont to the Henry Sheldon Museum,” Cleves told me. “I saw they had archives, and I thought, ‘I bet there are amazing stories in here. You never know what’s in a local history archive.’”
Later that fall, while Cleves was researching William Cullen Bryant, a 19th-century American poet, she came across something peculiar. “Bryant had written a letter,” Cleves said, “about a visit he paid to his aunts, or, as he sometimes joked, his aunt and uncle: two women, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, who lived together in marriage in a small town in Vermont.” In his letter, Cullen had described Charity and Sylvia’s relationship with language from the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage ceremony: “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, etc.”
Cleves couldn’t contain her amazement. “I thought late-18th and early-19th century U.S. history was a field I knew really well,” she admitted. “But here was a same-sex relationship being described in an open and published way as a marriage.” And this marriage existed at a moment in U.S. history when legalization of same-sex marriage wasn’t even a discussion.
“I immediately went looking for any sources about Charity and Sylvia,” Cleves said. Who were these women? And what was the nature of their relationship?
As Cleves describes in her book, Charity and Sylvia:
“Of course,” Cleves noted, “historians have often said, ‘In many of these cases, we can’t substantiate.’ Or, ‘We don't know if these people engaged in an erotic relationship.’ Or, only for women's history, ‘Can we prove that it's genital?’” The implications these questions carry, Cleves added, stem from a presumption of historical heteronormative standards.
Cleves laid it bare: “Anything that deviates from the heteronormative has to have a smoking gun. We apply the need for a level of evidence to same-sex intimacy that we would never apply to cross-sex intimacy. We don't ask whether heterosexual married couples were sexual partners. Because of this, we apply a different standard of evidence to same-sex intimacy, which is unjustified.”
So, instead of looking for “the smoking gun,” Cleves let the poetry and love letters of Charity and Sylvia do the talking. “Their poetry talked about physical intimacy, mostly in the language of caresses or kisses,” said Cleves. “There are also letters that Charity exchanged with women with whom she was in intimate relationships prior to Sylvia. And some of the letters are really erotically suggestive.”
As Cleves made her way through a set of letters Charity received from a lover named Lydia Richards, she noticed that each one became “more and more fervent.” So fervent, in fact, that the final letter in the archived collection, or “the crescendo of erotic fervency,” as Cleves called it, was replaced with a note stating that the letter had gone missing. “I suspect,” said Cleves, “that the missing letter got cleansed for being too forthcoming about the sexual nature of this prior relationship.”
Cleves’s studies of these erotic love letters and early-American definitions of marriage reveal some truths about society today. “A self-serving myth that we tell ourselves as moderns,” Cleves said, “is that the past was benighted and prejudiced, and only we in the current moment have the wisdom and insight to have flourishing lives.” In truth, however, “this is not an accurate rendering of the past.”
History is more varied and capable than we often might acknowledge. While marred by war and injustice, queer stories––many of which are still waiting to be uncovered––provide a different tale. “Charity and Silvia’s story revealed to me that there actually was space in the 19th century for two women to live together in a marriage that was commonly recognized,” Cleves said. “Pleasure, love, kinship, and community can also be part of queer history.”
These are the stories we learn about in Queer History 101: moments, big and small, that made a difference to someone, somewhere, at some time. “There's a lot that remains to be discovered," concluded Cleves. "Don't doubt that a small town local history collection can include stories of same-sex love, because they can.”
What queer stories are still hidden in your town?
For more of Cleves’s incredible work, check out her book, Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014).
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