Boston Marriages & QPRs
Within the aromantic community, queer/quasiplatonic relationships (QPRs) are commonly discussed. Some aromantics avoid the conventional romantic relationships society focuses on, but they may still desire companionship or significant connections that blur the lines of what is traditionally accepted by society. QPRs are unique relationships, queer especially in how aromantics navigate them. They provide a way to forge a relationship on the terms of those involved, arming participants with the ability to prioritize both their own and their partners’ wants and goals.
Most aromantics are aware of QPRs, and they have recently been popularized throughout both the aro and ace communities. However, it is not the only concept of its kind to exist throughout history. In our last article we talked about the Golden Orchid society, in which it was a common practice for women to marry and live together. While this was popular among people that might today be called lesbian or bisexual, not all of the relationships were romantic and/or sexual in nature. Some of these relationships could be called QPRs if we were to place them in modern times, and that is where aromantics may see some of themselves in the history that predates the formation of our community. Today we will be diving deeper into the realm of queer relationships with the romantic friendships of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most commonly known as Boston Marriages.
The concept of romantic friendship predates the 19th century, as proven by the Golden Orchid Society, as well as their long history in England and other European countries. The term “Boston Marriage” itself comes from a book written by Henry James in 1886, called The Bostonians, which features a long term, cohabiting relationship between two women. At the time it was written, Henry’s sister Alice lived with a woman named Katherine Loring in just such a relationship, and this was thought to be his inspiration.
A Boston Marriage was a partnership between two women, who lived together independent of male support. In many ways it resembled a more traditional marriage, with the two women supporting each other financially through their combined household, and often sharing kisses, hugs, or even a bed. The relationships offered equality, support, and independence to women who were unhappy with the common options presented to them at the time. For those uninterested in a traditional marriage, a Boston Marriage seemed a much better solution. It was fairly popular among female academics in particular, as a woman was often only able to pursue her studies if she was single, being expected to retire once married to take care of the household and children.
Women who wanted a career instead found themselves financially independent, and as such found freedom in their lives. These women, often feminists involved in social and cultural causes, gravitated towards each other, and came to be referred to as “new women”. At the time, men and women lived in largely different circles. When single, the two could have little to do with each other, and as such, these “new women” gravitated towards each other, forming the close friendships that would eventually evolve in Boston Marriages.
Society was fairly accepting of these partnerships at the time, largely due to the way women’s sexuality was viewed. To the vast majority of society, an unmarried woman was considered to have no sexual desires, and therefore they only saw these partnerships as chaste, passionate friendships. There is no doubt that many of these partnerships were romantic and/or sexual in nature, historical queerness hidden in plain sight, but, as with the relationships of the Golden Orchid Society, not all of these “romantic friendships” were sexual and/or romantic in nature, despite the name. Often, the term “romantic” was used interchangeably with “passionate” or “affectionate”, denoting intense and often platonic emotions, rather then referring solely to romantic feelings.
It was not uncommon throughout history for people to have intense platonic relationships, the exact nature of which causes arguments to this day. There is some debate over Abraham Lincoln’s friendship with a man named Joshua Speed, for instance. The two slept in the same bed for four years, and Speed once wrote a letter to Lincoln that read: “You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting -- I will never cease, while I know how to do anything”. In Lincoln’s time, this sort of poetic friendship was common and had nothing to do with homosexual feelings. Another example of these attitudes is Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem ‘Calamus’, which some see as a coming out letter. One passage of the poem reads:
‘The one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast -- And that night I was happy.’
A literary critic named John Addington Symonds, who later wrote about his own sexual experiences with men, sent a letter to Whitman asking if this referred to “the possible intrusion of those semi-sexual emotions and actions which no doubt do occur between men?”, a.k.a. romantic and/or sexual emotions between men. Whitman was quick to respond, saying that Symonds was making "morbid inferences -- wh' are disavow'd by me & seem damnable."
It seems strange that a man who wrote about lying in another man’s arms in the moonlight would then turn around and damn homosexuality, but at the time, there was a lot more intimacy seen in same-sex friendships than we see as acceptable in many western cultures today. Today people may question someone’s sexuality if they so much as see them hug someone appearing as the same gender, especially in the western world, but back then, such acts were commonplace. Over time, attitudes shifted, and for a time, “romantic friendships” all but died out.
What We Make Of Them
The modern-day QPR holds many similarities to these historical relationships, and may even be seen as an evolution of them. Like Boston Marriages and the relationships of the Golden Orchid Society, QPRs are an affectionate bond outside of the traditional idea of a relationship. They often involve queer people, being especially popular among aros and aces, but definitely not limited to them. Some QPRs seem indistinguishable from conventional romantic relationships, while others avoid the traditional goals of marriage and children. Every QPR is different, the specifics defined by those who participate in them.
We’ve said before that aromantic history is nebulous and vague, and we’ve talked about the difficulty in applying modern queer labels to historical concepts and figures. It is no different with Boston Marriages, and the concept of romantic friendships in general. Can we say for certain that everyone who participated in these friendships was in the equivalent of a QPR? Of course not. For most there’s no way to tell why exactly these relationships formed, what the exact nature of them was, or what identities the people within them may have held. We can, however, draw parallels between their experiences and our own. These experiences show that there have always been people who sought alternate kinds of relationships, and who eschewed romance, for whatever reason.
Looking back at concepts like Boston Marriages and the Golden Orchid Society, not to mention the history of romantic friendships in general, it is clear that the idea behind QPRs is not new and not alone. These relationships follow a proud tradition that goes back centuries, one intertwined within the very fabric of queer history.