'Loving v. Virginia' 45 years later: gay marriage is the new 'miscegenation'

Today is Loving Day: a celebration of the June 12, 1967 Supreme Court decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. This year is especially important.  Forty-five years ago, a black woman and a white man wanted to live as a married couple in their hometown, but state law said they could not. Mildred and Richard Loving took their case to the nation’s highest court, where they became the perfectly named poster couple for love and justice.   They could not have predicted how far their case would go.

While interracial marriage pushed the marital envelope half a century ago, same sex marriage is doing the same thing today.  Now that President Barack Obama has announced his support for same sex marriage, it will definitely become a hot issue in this fall’s election.  This forces a reconsideration of people’s fundamental ideas about civil rights and civil liberties beyond a black-white racial limitation.

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Loving stood for two principles.  First, all citizens have the fundamental right to marry.  This is not about a proper definition of marriage, or what we think it should be, but about giving people the autonomy and the privacy to decide their intimate lives for themselves.  So even if marriage is defined by traditional concepts of family formation, the picture of marriage as a joining of husband and wife has always been a value judgment that finds no secure constitutional support.

Secondly, Loving reminds us that all people should be treated equally.  Loving corrected the longstanding inequalities of Jim Crow that perpetuated white supremacy.  When race separatists argued that antimiscegenation laws still allowed everyone to marry—only with someone of the same race—Loving exposed this an illogical branch of equality.

Opponents of same sex marriage unwittingly echo the proponents of antimiscegenation law.  In 1960’s Virginia, the state emphasized its right to regulate marriage, and prohibiting race mixing was equated with preventing sibling marriage or child marriage.  Similar arguments have been repeated to deny same sex marriage, with conservatives like former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum insisting that allowing gay marriage forges a path to incest, bestiality and other atrocities.  Staunch “Adam and Eve” advocates of man/wife marriage stand on the same platform as midcentury Southern segregationists: everyone may marry — as long as it’s within an acceptable parameter of conservative respectability. We cannot afford to reiterate those old prejudices.

Obama’s declaration of the importance of same sex marriage marks a decisive turn in the new debate on civil rights. Perhaps sexual orientation is a completely different issue than race, but that does not mean that it’s okay to deny people of their fundamental rights. People in generations past viewed interracial marriage as the end of decency and the erosion of propriety.  Of course, there are continued debates on the benefits and drawbacks of freedom of choice, but it would take a dark turn in the development of civil rights to advocate a return to the antimiscegenation regime.  As it was in 1967, supporting the freedom to marry is a moral choice. Who a person chooses as a partner cannot be transformed by law. People are not going to reorient their racial or gender inclinations because some law tells them their choice is unworthy.

Freedom to marry is a human rights issue, whether it is about race or sexual orientation. Interracial families raise well-balanced, healthy children, just as same sex couples do the same.  Despite what antagonists to same sex marriage believe, the world does not end once marriage rights are extended to all.  In the true spirit of Loving Day, family formation should be a celebration of individual choice rather than exclusions based on social acceptance.