A Similar Sort of War

by Steven Swayne | 11/4/04 6:00am

Our ongoing culture war over marriage for gays and lesbians bears striking resemblances to America's culture war over interracial marriage (also known as miscegenation, or the mixing of races). Like all analogies, there are differences as well as similarities, but perhaps we have not pressed the analogy far enough. The entire history of miscegenation has valuable lessons to teach us today.

Two items from that earlier struggle clearly mirror our current situation. First, the arguments against miscegenation sound eerily like the arguments against same-sex marriage, with appeals to the Bible, nature, tradition, and the welfare of children. Second, the 2003 Goodridge decision that extended marriage to gay couples in Massachusetts (a 4-3 decision) is reminiscent of the 1948 case of Perez v. Sharp (another 4-3 decision), in which California's highest court struck down that state's anti-miscegenation law some twenty years before the United States Supreme Court struck down all state and federal anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia (1967).

But should we conclude that we are in a post-Perez, pre-Loving phase in the battle for marriage benefits for gay couples? No one seriously believes that the U.S. Supreme Court will impose gay marriage upon our nation anytime soon. Rather, recent events suggest that we are in a pre-Perez, post-Civil War phase of same-sex marriage, with many more twists and turns before us.

Consider first the politics of miscegenation. Interracial marriage is as old as humanity, and various cultures embraced miscegenation to varying degrees. The American colonies, for example, alternately allowed and discouraged the practice. It wasn't until 1863, though, that the issue heated up and boiled over into a presidential campaign.

The word "miscegenation" was coined that year when two Democratic writers anonymously published a pamphlet that extolled the virtues of interracial marriage. It was a trap, and some unwitting Republicans fell into it. The Democrats labeled the Republicans as being too pro-black for the good of the country. Abraham Lincoln had his hands full with a major war; his opponents tried to use miscegenation as a wedge issue. Today, Lincoln's party uses gay marriage as a wedge issue; the Republican National Committee even distributed a pamphlet in Arkansas and West Virginia that said the Democrats would ban Bibles and usher in gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Democrats work overtime to show themselves as not being too gay-friendly.

Then take the case of Burns v. State. In 1872, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the state's anti-miscegenation law was unconstitutional. There was such a backlash from white supremacists that, five years later in Green v. State, the court reversed itself and reinstated the law. Some states (like Massachusetts) repealed their anti-miscegenation laws in the 19th century, but others (such as Virginia) toughened their statutes. As states today pass draconian anti-gay statutes and enshrine the "defense of marriage" in their state constitutions, we hear strong echoes of those earlier defenses of white supremacy.

Consider also the goings-on at the federal level. In 1911, Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry, D-Ga., introduced a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed miscegenation throughout the republic. His proposal was advanced at a time when state anti-miscegenation laws reached a peak in number and severity and when Jack Johnson, the 1910 black heavyweight champion, cavorted with white women. We see a similar attempt at the federal level to ban gay marriage at a time when state bans pass with supermajorities and gay couples are visible throughout society.

One other comparison needs to be drawn. Most Americans in the late nineteenth century were not white supremacists. Many believed that blacks deserved some legal protections, and most knew that miscegenation was unlikely to affect them personally. All the same, these white Americans were ambivalent toward black Americans. They allowed the rhetoric and actions of white supremacists to prevail. They chose to ignore the hurtful -- and sometimes fatal -- consequences of their complicity. And all Americans continue to pay the price for that quiet capitulation to white supremacy.

Today, straight supremacists are trying to impose their vision of America upon those who act ambivalently toward gay people. These complicit straights pity anyone who is gay ("What a challenge it must be!"), ask why gays insist on flaunting their sexuality as they talk about their spouses and children and pray like crazy that their own kids will grow up to be straight. They reject the overheated language of the straight supremacists, but they welcome the world that the straight supremacists envision and vote with them to uphold straight privilege.

Eventually gay couples will achieve full legal equality throughout America, just as interracial couples achieved equality. How soon that day arrives depends on how loudly the advocates for same-sex marriage denounce straight supremacy and how long it takes the majority of Americans to abandon its condescension to gays. Even so, the sad history of miscegenation suggests that if we are in a pre-Perez phase, as I believe we are, full gay marriage equality may be years -- even decades -- away.

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