The more things change…


I keep telling people it wasn’t that long ago that opposition to interracial marriage was stronger than the current opposition to same sex marriage.

A common point of contention in discussions of gay rights is whether it is appropriate, logical, or even accurate to compare the struggle for equal rights for gay people with the struggle for racial equality. There are a wide variety of rationalizations given for saying they are not comparable. Rather than pick each of those apart, I’m more concerned with two undeniable ways in which they are similar:

  • The arguments that opponents to gay rights use are identical to arguments that the opponents of racial equality use or have used in the past.
  • The demographics of the people who most adamantly opposed racial equality are nearly the same as those people most opposed to gay rights.

A friend shared the graphic I’ve included above from @HistOpinion on twitter recently, and I was most amused by the people who were shocked to learn two things: as recently as 1970 there were still several states with laws against interracial marriage, and as recently as 1970 a lot of people approved of those laws.

I was alive in 1970, but even more important to this discussion, I was alive in 1967, the year that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that those laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. It is true that I was only in grade school when that ruling came down, but I remember the time clearly. Suddenly, it seemed as if every adult in my life was talking about interracial marriage. None of them—not my parents, not my parents’ friends, not my Sunday School teacher, not my friends’ parents, not the pastor at church, not any of the adults at the monthly church potluck, not my grandparents—bothered to tell me why they were talking about it, but they were all talking about it.

And these are things I heard with my own ears at the time regarding interracial marriage:

  • I’m not racist, but I think it’s wrong because it confuses children.
  • I’m not racist, I’m just on the right side of the Bible!
  • If they can’t control their sinful impulses, why can’t they at least keep it private?
  • They can live how they want, but why do they insist on calling it a marriage?
  • I’m not saying they don’t deserve equal rights, I’m just in favor of Biblical marriage/traditional families.
  • It’s not about equal rights! They have equal rights already. They can marry someone of their own race, just like we can!
  • You can’t call me racist for saying that! There are blacks who are just as opposed to it as I am!
  • Of course they can do what they want with their own lives, but why can’t they think of the children? How can they be so selfish as to force their children to grow up with that burden?
  • It may be what the law says, but I have a right to my religious beliefs!

Sound familiar?

There are a few arguments they make now about marriage equality that didn’t come up nearly as often in 1967 regarding interracial marriage, but they were not totally absent:

By 1967 there were hardly any people who made the argument that interracial couples were incapable of having children, and therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. But a hundred years earlier, a lot of people were. One Senator even entered a letter from a “respected scientist who has studied this issue for years” into the Congressional Record that made that argument: white people and black people were incapable of producing children “naturally.” How did they explain those cases where children who appeared to be interracial had been born? Simple, anyone perverted enough to want to have sex with a member of another race obviously had no sexual morals at all, and was having sex with anyone they could, so they got pregnant by someone of their own race, not the person of another race who they claimed was their only sex partner. And the children resembled the other race because the intensity of the sin of the parent marked the child.

That was considered serious science not just in 1870, but for some decades afterward. And people in 1967 alluded to that sort of superstitious understanding of biology, even though most weren’t overtly making the “they can’t reproduce” claim. For instance, often when the adults around me were discussing interracial marriage, someone would tell a story of a couple of white people who “mysteriously” had a child who appeared to be not just African American, but extremely dark-skinned African. According to the urban legend, the cause wasn’t that there had been some hanky-panky going on between the white mother and someone other than her white partner. No, the story always ended with an older relative of one of the parents eventually tearfully confessing that generations before there had been an interracial marriage in the family, but they thought they had kept it secret.

The other argument that is frequently made today regarding marriage for same sex couples is, “this is different than race, because race isn’t a matter of choice.” Science doesn’t back up that understanding of homosexuality, of course, but the people who make this sort of argument don’t believe or care about the science. And that’s not why I’m bringing it up. I’m bringing it up because the argument is disingenuous in another way.

Throughout the debates regarding racial equality, a certain segment of the opposition (for instance, most of the people attending those Southern Baptist churches I grew up in), would mention “the Mark of Cain.” This is an allusion to the Biblical passage where, after Cain is condemned and exiled by god for murdering his brother, Cain pleads for clemency because wherever he goes, people will want to kill him. So god says they he’ll mark Cain so that people understand that Cain is under god’s protection. The Bible never describes what this mark is (nor does it explain who these other people that Cain is worried about are, since at this point in the Bible, there are no other people, because Adam and Eve have had only two children so far). But among certain fundamentalist Christian sects, it is assumed that Cain’s mark is to be dark skinned.

Those folks made that confusing Biblical reference in regards to discussions of racial equality because the rest of the theological argument goes something like this: god knows the future, so he knows before you are born what kind of sinner you will be; knowing this, god sends the souls that are prone to certain sins to be born to parents of dark-skinned races; he also sends the souls that are prone to certain virtues to be born to white parents. (They make a similar argument about sexual discrimination: souls that deserve to be in charge are born male, souls that deserve to be subservient are born female.) In this convoluted belief system, race isn’t a matter of genetics and history, it is a matter of your future choices. If god hadn’t known you were going to live a certain kind of sinful life, he wouldn’t have let your soul be born in that body.

In other words, many of the people who are most insistent today that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is a matter of choice and sin, also believe that being born a particular race is a matter of the sins and choices god foresees that a person will commit. They don’t actually see racial equality and sexual orientation equality as being different categories at all—they’ve just realized that it’s no longer socially acceptable to be as overt about that Mark of Cain stuff. Nowadays, if they explicitly explained that it’s their sincerely held religious belief that being of one race or another is a sign from god about the worth of a person’s character or about their proper place in society, everyone else would agree that they are racist. Everyone would agree that it would be wrong to impose those religious beliefs about what people of one race are allowed to do, and what members of other races are forbidden to do into law.

Holding, no matter how sincerely, the belief that which gender one is attracted to and falls in love with is a matter of sin is just as bigoted as all that “deserving souls” stuff. More importantly, imposing those religious beliefs about what straight people are allowed to do, and what gay people are forbidden to do, is wrong.



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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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