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Gay History – May 11: The First Gay Marriage Takes Place in 54 AD, The Ladies of Llangollen and Billy Bean

May 11th.

54 AD – Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or just plain NERO to his friends becomes Emperor of Rome.  Nero is know to have married at least one gay male couple in legal ceremonies, with at least one spouse accorded the same honors as an empress. Gay relationships were in fact accepted and institutionalized during this time period.

Early Roman poets and critics wrote about the practice, from Juvenal’s satire that mentions Gracchus, who “arrayed himself in the flounces and train and veil of a bride,” to Martial, a first-century poet who observed that homosexual marriage was not uncommon in the empire during the first century. Both Juvenal and Martial gave us accounts of men who “played the bride” in wedding ceremonies, wearing bridal veils like women.

It was not till much later that homosexuality became the big sinful BAD. (See below.)

1102 AD – The Council of London took measures to ensure that the public, who were quite tolerant of homosexuality at the time, knew that it was sinful, marking a significant shift in church attitudes towards homosexuality, which previously had been more or less indifference, or very mild condemnation. Many priests were homosexuals, likely one of the causes of the change in attitude, as moral reformers such as Bernard of Cluny called for change.

 1250 – 1300 AD – “Between 1250 and 1300, homosexual activity passed from being legal in most of Europe to incurring the death penalty in all but a few contemporary legal compilations.” – John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980)

1739 and 1755 –  The Ladies of Llangollen – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby celebrate joint birthdays and shared their lives for a half century. Both Irish aristocrats, they ran away  from their native Ireland to live in Wales together. The subject of several excellent books, they seem to have scandalized and impressed their neighbors as well as London high society.”

Rather than face the possibility of being forced into unwanted marriages, they left County Kilkenny together in April 1778. Their families hunted them down and forcefully tried to make them give up their plans—but in vain. They moved to Wales with a servant, Mary Caryll, who lived and worked for them without pay for the rest of her life, and who was buried in the same plot and memorialized on the same grave marker.

Putting their plan into motion, they undertook a picturesque tour of the Welsh countryside, eventually settling in North Wales. Living first in a rented home in the village of Llangollen, they moved in 1780 to a small cottage just outside the village they called Plas Newydd or “new mansion”.

After a couple of years, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for visitors travelling between Dublin and London, including writers such as Anna Seward,  Robert Southey, William Wordsworth,  Percy Shelley,  Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott,

Butler and Ponsonby lived together for 50 years. 

Mary Caryll died in 1809. Eleanor Butler died in 1829 at the age of 90. Sarah Ponsonby died two years later, age 76. They are all buried together at St Collen’s Church in Llangollen.

1999 – Billy Bean the former outfielder and left-handed hitter for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres makes headlines in when he became only the second baseball player to publicly come out, three years after his retirement. It was a long struggle to get there. As a closeted pro athlete, he struggled to juggle his secret and his career. He divorced his wife in 1993 and secretly moved in with his first lover. When his lover died of AIDS, Bean didn’t attend the funeral because he was too frightened that his secret would be revealed. “Why was it so impossible to think that a baseball player could grieve for a man?” he later reflected. “That was a terrible, terrible decision I made.”

His 2003 book, Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball, chronicles the ups and downs of his life as a gay man and baseball player. Bean is currently a real estate agent in Miami.



Will Kohler

Will Kohler is one of America's best known LGBT historians, He is also a a accredited journalist and the owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced on such notable media venues as BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story. Back2Stonewall has been recently added to the Library of Congress' LGBTQ+ Studies Web Archive. Mr. Kohler is available for comment, interviews and lectures on LGBT History. Contact: Will@Back2Stonewall.com

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