Romantic friendship

The term romantic friendship refers to a very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that common in modern Western societies, for example holding hands, cuddling, sharing a bed, as well as open expressions of love for one another.

Same-sex romantic friendship was considered common and unremarkable in the West, and was distinguished from then-taboo homosexual relationships, up until the second half of the 19th century, but after that time its open expression generally became much rarer as physical intimacy between non-sexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.

Several small groups of advocates and researchers have advocated for the renewed use of the term, or the related term Boston marriage, today. Several lesbian, gay, and feminist authors (such as Lillian Faderman, Stephanie Coontz, Jaclyn Geller and Esther Rothblum) have done academic research on the topic; these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept.

Historian Stephanie Coontz writes of pre-modern customs in the United States:

Examples of historical romantic friendship

The study of historical romantic friendship is difficult because the primary source material consists of writing about love relationships, which typically took the form of love letters, poems, or philosophical essays rather than objective studies. Most of these do not explicitly state the sexual or nonsexual nature of relationships; the fact that homosexuality was taboo in Western European cultures at the time means that some sexual relationships may be hidden, but at the same time the rareness of romantic friendship in modern times means that references to nonsexual relationships may be misinterpreted, as alleged by Faderman, Coontz, Anthony Rotundo, Douglas Bush, and others.

Shakespeare and Fair Lord

The content of Shakespeare's works has raised the question of whether he may have been bisexual. The question of whether an Elizabethan was "gay" in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concepts of homosexuality and bisexuality as identities did not emerge until the 19th century; while sodomy was a crime in the period, there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality). Elizabethans also frequently wrote about friendship in more intense language than is common today.

Although twenty-six of the Shakespeare's sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the "Dark Lady"), one hundred and twenty-six are addressed to a young man (known as the "Fair Lord"). The amorous tone of the latter group, which focus on the young man's beauty, has been interpreted as evidence for Shakespeare's bisexuality, although others interpret them as referring to intense friendship or fatherly affection, not sexual love.

Among those of the latter interpretation, in the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes:

"Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality... we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature".

Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from "that other, licentious Greek love" Rollins 1:55; Bush cited Montaigne's 1580 work "On Friendship," in which the exact quote was "And this other Greeke licence is justly abhorred by our customes"; cited from The Harvard Classics, 1909-1914 reprinted at sp.), another way in which Montaigne differed from the modern view was that he felt that friendship and platonic emotion were a primarily masculine capacity (apparently unaware of the custom of female romantic friendship which also existed):

Lesbian-feminist historian Lillian Faderman cites Montaigne, using "On Friendship" as evidence that romantic friendship was distinct from homosexuality, since the former could be extolled by famous and respected writers, who simultaneously disparaged homosexuality. (The quotation also further's Faderman's beliefs that gender and sexuality are socially constructed, since they indicate that each sex has been thought of as "better" at intense friendship in one or another period of history.)

Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Some historians have used the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed as another example of a relationship that modern people see as ambiguous or possibly gay, but which was most likely to have been a romantic friendship. Lincoln and Speed lived together and shared a bed in their youth and maintained a lifelong friendship. David Herbert Donald pointed out that men at that time often shared beds for financial reasons; men were used to same-sex nonsexual intimacy since most parents could not afford separate beds or rooms for male siblings. Anthony Rotundo notes that the custom of romantic friendship for men in America in the early 1800s was different from that of Renaissance France, and it was expected that men will distance themselves emotionally and physically somewhat after marriage; he claims that letters between Lincoln and Speed show this distancing after Lincoln married Mary Todd. Such distancing, which is still practiced today, could indicate that Lincoln was following the social customs of his day, rather than rebelling against the taboo on homosexuality.

Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert

Faderman uses the letters between poet Emily Dickinson and her friend and later sister-in-law Sue Gilbert to show how love between women, understood as nonsexual romantic friendship, was accepted as normal at the time, and only later thought of as deviant:

Following is an excerpt of the examples of censorship that Faderman cites: The 1924/1932 editions of Dickinson's letters include a letter dated June 11, 1852, from Emily, saying:

The original letter reads:

Those who favor the homosexual interpretation might argue that Dickinson would feel no need to censor any sort of relationship in a private love letter, even if the relationship was taboo at the time. Faderman's position is that the originals were not destroyed because they were not taboo at the time.

Biblical and religious evidence for romantic friendship

Proponents of the romantic friendship hypothesis also make reference to the Bible. Historians like Faderman and Robert Brain believe that the descriptions of relationships such as David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi in this religious text establish that the customs of romantic friendship existed and were thought of as virtuous in the ancient Near East, despite the simultaneous taboo on homosexuality.

The relationship between King David and Jonathan is often cited as an example of male romantic friendship; for example, Faderman uses 2 Samuel 1:26 on the title page of her book: "Your love was wonderful to me, passing the love of women."

Ruth and Naomi are the female Biblical pair most often cited as a possible romantic friendship, as in the following verse commonly used in heterosexual wedding ceremonies:

Faderman writes that women in Renaissance and Victorian times made reference to both Ruth and Naomi and "Davidean" friendship as the basis for their romantic friendships.

Jesus himself is sometimes cited as an example; for example, lesbian author Elizabeth Stuart states that "The only model of relating that we can definitely see operating in the life of Jesus, as presented to us by the Gospels, is friendship." Examples of pre-modern standards of physical contact in the Gospels include John 13:23: "One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus."

While some authors, notably John Boswell, have claimed that ecclesiatical practice in earlier ages blessed "same sex unions", the accurate interpretation of these relationships rests on a proper understanding of the mores and values of the participants, including both the parties receiving the rite in question and the clergy officiating at it. Boswell himself concedes that past relationships are ambiguous; when describing Greek and Roman attitudes, Boswell states that "[A] consensual physical aspect would have been utterly irrelevant to placing the relationship in a meaningful taxonomy." Boswell's own interpretation has been thoroughly critiqued, notably by Brent D. Shaw, himself a homosexual, in a review written for the New Republic :

It should be noted that historian Robert Brain has also traced these ceremonies from Pagan "blood brotherhood" ceremonies through medieval Catholic ceremonies called "gossipry" or "siblings before God," on to modern ceremonies in some Latin American countries referred to as "compadrazgo"; Brain considers the ceremonies to refer to romantic friendship.

See also

Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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