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, and sharing a bed.
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:
Perfectly respectable Victorian women wrote to each other in terms such as these: ‘I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.’ They recorded the ‘furnace blast’ of their ‘passionate attachments’ to each other... They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights... Today if a woman died and her son or husband found such diaries or letters in her effects, he would probably destroy them in rage or humiliation. In the nineteenth century, these sentiments were so respectable that surviving relatives often published them in elegies....
[In the 1920s] people’s interpretation of physical contact became extraordinarily ‘privatized and sexualized,’ so that all types of touching, kissing, and holding were seen as sexual foreplay rather than accepted as ordinary means of communication that carried different meanings in different contexts... It is not that homosexuality was acceptable before; but now a wider range of behavior opened a person up to being branded as a homosexual... The romantic friendships that had existed among many unmarried men in the nineteenth century were no longer compatible with heterosexual identity.
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.
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".
Seeing (to speake truly) that the ordinary sufficiency of women cannot answer this conference and communication, the nurse of this sacred bond: nor seeme their mindes strong enough to endure the pulling of a knot so hard, so fast, and durable. (sp.)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.)
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.
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:
Emily's love letters to Sue were written in the early 1850s. Bianchi's [Martha Dickinson Bianchi, her niece] editions appeared in 1924 and 1932. Because Bianchi was Sue's daughter, she wished to show that Emily relied on Sue, that Sue influenced her poetry, and that the two were the best of friends. But working during the height of the popularization of Sigmund Freud, she must have known to what extent intense friendship had fallen into disrepute. She therefore edited out all indications of Emily's truly powerful involvement with her mother.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:
...Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. I try to bring you nearer...The original letter reads:
...Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say, my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say something to you not for the world, words fail me. If you were here-- and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language... I try to bring you nearer...
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.
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:
Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.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 :
Given the centrality of Boswell's "new" evidence, therefore, it is best to begin by describing his documents and their import. These documents are liturgies for an ecclesiastical ritual called adelphopoiesis or, in simple English, the "creation of a brother." Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for marriage ceremonies. Boswell's translation of their titles (akolouthia eis adelphopoiesin and parallels) as "The Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men" or "Office for Same-Sex Union" is inaccurate. In the original, the titles say no such thing. And this sort of tendentious translation of the documents is found, alas, throughout the book. Thus the Greek words that Boswell translates as "be united together" in the third section of the document quoted above are, in fact, rather ordinary words that mean "become brothers" (adelphoi genesthai); and when they are translated in this more straightforward manner, they impart a quite different sense to the reader.
Such agreements and rituals are "same-sex" in the sense that it is two men who are involved; and they are "unions" in the sense that the two men involved are co-joined as "brothers." But that is it. There is no indication in the texts themselves that these are marriages in any sense that the word would mean to readers now, nor in any sense that the word would have meant to persons then: the formation of a common household, the sharing of everything in a permanent co-residential unit, the formation of a family unit wherein the two partners were committed, ideally, to each other, with the intent to raise children, and so on.
Although it is difficult to state precisely what these ritualized relationships were, most historians who have studied them are fairly certain that they deal with a species of "ritualized kinship" that is covered by the term "brotherhood." (This type of "brotherhood" is similar to the ritualized agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other "men of honor" in our own society.) That explains why the texts on adelphopoiesis in the prayerbooks are embedded within sections dealing with other kinship-forming rituals, such as marriage and adoption. Giovanni Tomassia in the 1880s and Paul Koschaker in the 1930s, whose works Boswell knows and cites, had already reached this conclusion.
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.