Walt Whitman’s Vision of Same-Sex Marriage

Posted by – October 09, 2014
Categories: Literature & the Arts Society & Politics Spirituality & Religion

I have shown in Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward how Whitman tapped into the archetype of Spiritual Democracy, which has indigenous roots in North America, and I clarified how he tried to universalize it by announcing a new religious attitude that is nondiscriminatory, feminist, and LGBT-affirming. The notion of marriage equality is pivotal today, particularly with the focus in the world being centered right now on democracy on all three levels―political, economic, and religious. The breakdown of organized religions, the reactionary trend towards fundamentalism in Islam and the West (including America’s religious right), and the urgent need for new unifying myths to give coherence to changes that are taking place across our globe today, presents us with an urgent psychological task, a calling to vocation. This blogpost addresses the controversial religious dimension of the sacred institution of marriage and presents a new myth that provides a collective foundation to lend support for the movement toward the institutionalization of same-sex marriage.

Whitman’s myth of “bi-erotic” marriage (my term) provides a counter-narrative to what has been previously offered by the three patriarchal monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—which have all been limited in providing non-prejudiced metaphorical meanings of Love. He provides an answer for those who fear same-sex marriage might destroy religion in this country; for seen cross-culturally, this is a biased assumption. Let us re-imagine, therefore, whether a less-prejudiced myth of bi-erotic marriage, which does not discriminate against anyone, might help us arrive at a better consciousness in these controversial discussions surrounding marriage equality/inequality today.

Whitman arrives at a new myth of religious equality by reaching a psychological vista, situated above all creeds and schools and theologies. Leaves of Grass is a transnational myth, which puts forth a vision of Spiritual Democracy that includes cross-cultural symbolisms. What do we mean by myth? Psychologically, all religious symbols are myths. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Whitman viewed the “finale” of all metaphysics as human love in all its bi-erotic forms: the well-married love of man and wife, parents and children, man and man—physical, soulful, and spiritual Love. This means Whitman freely wrote Leaves of Grass in such a way that he hoped it would not transgress theological grounds or pose any problem for synagogues, churches, or mosques.

Whitman’s views on marriage equality can be liberating for LGBT people—for women, children, all nationalities, and all races. The marriage question taps into issues of our civil rights, rights of conscience, economic rights, and rights of what constitutes correct ethicalpractice. The time has come for new metaphors to take these marriage discussions into deeper waters.

Any new myth that attempts to supersede the old Judeo-Christian-Islamic notions of marriage must be based on an objective vision outside any one biased culture; we have to look therefore at marriage cross-culturally, trans-religiously and trans-nationally, if we are to consider it objectively and psychologically.

The idea that heterosexual marriage is the only institution of marriage that should be legally binding is an idea that is based on a biased view of a presumed metaphysical Truth. No one is exempt from bias. Yet, we have to examine the roots of our prejudices and consider carefully whether our opinions regarding marriage equality/inequality are discriminatory or not, and bias our ethical views, and judge, unfairly, against a minority of individuals in our society.

Whitman’s myth of Spiritual Democracy puts forth an embodied emotional-image, a thought-form, or metaphor of bi-erotic marriage that we do not find in the major religions of the world because, in most religions, with few notable exceptions, same-sex bodily symbolism is excluded. I find it original with Whitman that he brings the body and sex down into his myth of spiritual/physical marriage. Writing for a multi-cultural, multi-spiritual, and internationally aware democratic society, Whitman inserted into his Spiritual Democracy the seeds for the possible transnational institutionalization of same-sex marriage in the future. We are seeing it re-emerge now as an equivalent principle alongside the heterosexual marriage institution.

Whitman attempts to glorify his myth of bi-erotic marriage with the whole Cosmos and makes his blessings available to all. What he brings forth are neither the old laws, judgments, or canons (of Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, Mark, John, or Mohammed), but a new post-Biblical/post-Koranic metaphor of marriage equality that makes room for everyone. He gives the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and the Prophet full credit for discovering the idea of spiritual brotherhood, yet, he distinguishes between brotherhood and bi-erotic marriage, as they are not the same. Spiritual brotherhood leaves the body out; it is a soulful marriage, whereas bi-erotic marriage is inclusive of the physical domain of the body. The myth of “spiritual brotherhood” is not equivalent with bi-erotic marriage, as Whitman experiences it, for his embodiment of democracy includes sexual poems written to both men and women.

Whitman’s myth of bi-erotic marriage is more modest than most. He submits himself to the Bible as a supreme authority. He even salutes the Bible and minds the Koran, yet, he never leaves sex and the physical body out of his democratic theory; he recognizes the body to be sacred and creates a new institution of man’s love for his fellow man on all levels of betrothal, engagement, and wedlock. Whitman’s bi-erotic vision is part of an evolving myth of “progress.” He suggests two men―or by extension two women―can be married as one body, one flesh, to create the incorruptible Body in this life. Marriage becomes Whitman’s gateway to unity with the Cosmos. Call it Immanuel, call it Christ, call it Gaia; it is Love.

Whitman’s point is that there are no dualisms regarding marriage. Marriage is a unitary notion. Equality is what democracy teaches. Equality (as non-dual) is what Whitman teaches. Whitman makes room for the possibility that once we catch up with his ecumenical vision, marriage-equality may one day become institutionalized across the United States and throughout the world, and his vision of Spiritual Democracy might help humble us as a global culture.

Whitman’s bi-erotic myth gets down to the physical domain of the body and has potential for impacting world religions, world politics, and the world’s social and legal institutions. When our faith and belief concepts are altered, to become more spiritually democratic, we might transcend old ideas about marriage as connoting betrothal, wedding and union only between a man and a woman. This is a residue from old religious laws that are economically, politically, and spiritually outworn in a feminist and LGBT culture. Whitman’s bi-erotic vision of marriage might be ushered in more rapidly, furthermore, if theology and psychology aim together at the same goal, which is collective Transformation.


About the author

Steven Herrmann has taught courses on Whitman and Melville at the C. G. Jung Institutes of San Francisco, Chicago, and Zurich, as well as at the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz. Herrmann’s expertise in Jungian Literary Criticism makes him one of the seminal thinkers in the international field and the foremost authority on Whitman and Melville in post-Jungian studies. Herrmann practices as a Jungian psychotherapist in Oakland, California.

Herrmann’s new book, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward (North Atlantic Books, 2014), will be available in bookstores on October 14th.

Tags: LGBT/Queer Studies Steven Herrmann

About the Author

Marina is the Marketing & Digital Programs Coordinator at North Atlantic Books. After living in New Orleans and Amsterdam, and exploring a couple of continents, she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at NAB. She's passionate about astrology, nonfiction books, and sustainable living, as well as all things metaphysical.