Same sex unions: places ahead of their time


Painting of people from ancient Mesopotamia

When it came to the acceptance of same sex unions, the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia was well ahead of its time … at least where men were concerned. The Almanac of Incantations from this period included prayers for both heterosexual and same sex couples – the third prayer being for the love of a man to a man.

No mention was made of the love of a woman to a woman – historians are unsure if this was because it wasn’t as approved of, or if it these relations were so common they didn’t need to be stated. Mesopotamia’s Code of Hammurabi (written around 1770 BC) mentions Salzikrum women, who are thought to be one of history’s most earliest mentioned lesbians.

China during the Shang, Zhou, Han and Ming dynasties 

Painting from Shang dynasty

The Shang dynasty, believed to be China’s earliest ruling dynasty (1766 –1030 BC), has records of homosexuality. In Li Yinhe’s book ‘History of Chinese Homosexuality’, she states that during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) almost all emperors were in same sex unions.

Earlier in the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BC), the relationship between ruler Wang Zhongxian and scholar Pan Zhang was accepted as a marriage, with the two men buried together after they died. So loved was their tale of affection that the tree planted on their grave became known as the ‘Shared Pillow Tree’.

While much of this history again focuses on male relationships, during the Ming dynasty there were instances of females binding themselves to other females in what has been described as elaborate ceremonies.

The Netherlands 

Photo two women kissing

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise same sex marriage, with polls showing the majority of Dutch people supported it. They legalised same sex activity back in 1811, somewhat thanks to Napoleon – when the French invaded the Netherlands, they enforced the Napoleonic Code. This code set about a new legal system and erased sodomy laws which had deemed same sex activity as crimes.

The Netherland’s has the world’s oldest LGBT organisation, COC Nederland, which was established in 1946. The country’s Equal Rights Law came into effect in 1994, making it illegal to discriminate against anyone on sexual orientation. Four years later, same sex couples were able to get the same partnership benefits as heterosexual couples. In 2018, the Netherlands is considered to be the most LGBT friendly destination in the world.


Photo pf a pride march

Sexual activity by people of the same sex was decriminalised in Canada in the late 60s. In 1999, same-sex couples living together were able to start getting many of the financial and legal (such as immigration) benefits historically only given to married couples.

In 2003, same-sex marriage started becoming legalised across Canada. It was formalised nationwide two years later thanks to the Civil Marriage Act. Protections around discrimination of sexual orientations were formalised in 1996, and gender identity or expression last year.


Photo Swedish pride march

Sweden is also a leader in LGBT rights, being one of the ten first countries to legalise same sex marriage (in 2009). Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was quoted in a Swedish magazine in 2017 as saying that all priests should “consecrate everyone, including same sex couples”, showing the government’s commitment to marriage equality.

Same sex Swedish couples, regardless if they are married or not, have been able to receive partnership benefits since the mid 90s. From 2003 onwards they have been able to adopt children and receive equal access to fertility support such as IVF. Having legalised same sex relationships in 1944, the Swedish constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Most recent