Forbidden Love

At first forbidden love might not seem to be distinct from other types. But if two people’s love were to endure through opposition, threats and social ostracism it would have to have a strength and resilience to make it stand out from other types. It is these qualities that make forbidden love worthy of special attention. There have always been those who have seen love as a threat and they are quite right to do so. Love has a tremendous power to move people, to cross boundaries and to challenge conventions. Likewise, there have always been those who have been prepared to risk much in order to love. In the West at least, the most famous example of forbidden love is that of Romeo and Juliet, whose love transcended the bitter and violent hatred between their respective families. Of course Romeo and Juliet were only literary characters but real-life stories of people defying religious and social conventions, risking banishment and even death exist in all times and all cultures. The Buddhist scriptures briefly record an incident that happened during the time of the Buddha. A young man and woman fell in love but the woman’s family opposed this relationship and tried to break it up. The young lovers decided that if they could not be together in this life at least they could be in the next, so he killed her and then committed suicide. [1]

Every year in India hundreds of young people of different castes or religions fall in love with each other. If they are caught by their families they may well be forcibly parted, sometimes even murdered. In apartheid South Africa it was illegal for people of different races to marry until 1990, as it was in some southern states of the US even in the late 1960s. In the recent past it was considered amusing, odd or even subversive for an upper class person to take anything other than a paternalistic interest in the “lower orders”, and should an aristocrat fall in love with and marry a commoner he or she was ostracised.

The love between Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination sparked the First World War, and his wife Sophie would be an example of this. He was a member of the imperial family; she was not. They fell deeply in love but kept their relationship secret for several years. When they finally announced their intention to marry there was icy disapproval from the imperial court. None of the royal family attended their wedding, they were not allowed to appear together during formal occasions, she was continually snubbed, and their children were denied royal titles. However they were prepared to endure these strictures and humiliations because of their love for each other, and they were together to the end, dying by a terrorist’s bullets. Ferdinand’s last words to her were: “Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”

As at the top, so too at the bottom. In 1793 Louis Saint Just declared that it was a crime to fail to hate the enemies of the French Revolution. After the “toiling masses” gained the upper hand, as they supposedly did in communist countries, sympathy for the rich and the aristocracy, let alone love, was seen as a betrayal of one’s class The murderous Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1976 and immediately banned education, money, religion, surnames, and even love. Families were deliberately broken up, each member being sent to a different work unit so they could have no contact with each other, and love marriages were replaced by those arranged by party committees. Any sign of affection to another person could be punished by death.

In much of the Christian world divorce was virtually impossible until recently except on the grounds of marital infidelity. As a consequence many people found themselves condemned to either a loveless union, a lonely separation or the social stigma of adultery. The “what God hath joined together let no man put asunder” attitude to marriage may have originally been meant to encourage lifelong commitment and marital stability. In reality it was the cause of a great deal of heartbreak, recrimination and regret. Individuals were forced to do the forbidden in order to have a second chance of finding love if the first one had failed.

An acquaintance of mine had been a clergyman in a church that took a very hard, biblical line against divorce. His marriage had been unhappy almost from the beginning but having a strong faith he endured it prayerfully and patiently. After 12 years he met a woman in his congregation and they fell in love. Because he was married they refrained from physical intimacy. Eventually the distance between him and his wife developed into open hostility and started having an effect on their two children. Thinking of what was best for the happiness of all concerned he decided to seek a divorce. The church elders tried to talk him out of it, but when he persisted they expelled him from the clergy and told him he would no longer be welcome in the church even as a lay man. After the divorce, his wife won custody of the children and then did everything she could to turn them against their father. His second marriage was a complete success; the two were “made for each other”. Unfortunately, always looming behind his happiness was the sorrow of his exile from the church he was devoted to and the estrangement of the two children he adored.

Until recently a type of love that was almost universally forbidden was that between members of the same sex. Throughout most of history and in most societies, same-sex love has been at best mocked and scorned and at worst denigrated and vilified. The persecution of gay people over the centuries and the calumny heaped on them have often meant that what should and could have been genuine love has been twisted into fugitive and loveless sex. Sorry to say the worst offenders in this persecution have been people who have most loudly preached love and understanding.

The opposition to same-sex love is curious when you consider it carefully. If we admit that gay people are capable of loving their parents, their siblings and their friends just as we are, and if we accept that this love is the same “normal” love that we feel towards our family and friends, why does that love suddenly become “abnormal” or “disordered” when it is directed towards someone of the same gender? Surely gay people’s love can have the same qualities of commitment and sharing, devotion and faithfulness, as heterosexual love. The constituents of their love are the same as everyone else’s. Even their romantic love is the same, only its object is different.

I have met a number of gay people who suffer from shame, self-hatred or depression or who have contemplated or even attempted suicide. Insisting that their natural affections are sinful makes it more likely that they will be rejected by their families and scorned by society, and that it will be harder for them to develop meaningful relationships. Forbidding people to express love in the way that is natural for them or to find fulfilment with the object of their love is one of the cruellest things one human being can do to another.


  1. M.II,109-10. [back]