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Gay Marriage and Interracial Marriage in America
New York and Rhode Island are the two most recent states to legalize gay civil unions or gay marriage. Interracial romantic relationships were once met with the same kind of stigma that homosexual relationships are today in the US. Over time, as racism declined, interracial marriages became accepted legally and culturally. They remain controversial in some quarters, but the positive development of these relationships provides lessons for the current and future course of gay marriage in America.
Laws against interracial marriage
Most states had laws restricting interracial sexual contact and marriage at one point or another in their history. These anti-miscegenation laws arose before American independence, in the 1690s in places like Virginia and Maryland, and continued to be legislated in new states over the course of American history. Many were repealed in the late 19th century in the wake of the abolition of slavery. Others remained in force or were strengthened in the 20th century.
Despite constitutional challenges and repeals in the 1940s and 50s, they enjoyed some popularity, with a 1958 Gallup poll indicating that 94% of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. In fact, as late as 1983, half of Americans disapproved of such unions. Miscegenation laws remained on the books in all Southern states and some others until 1967, with the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling that such laws were unconstitutional (Loving v. Virginia).
Similar to gay marriage today, opposition to interracial marriage was often supported with religious foundations. Virginia trial court judge Leon Bazile declared in the case that eventually went to the Supreme Court:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
Right to marriage
The Supreme Court identified a "right" to marriage in its 1967 decision:
"Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
This opinion can be construed in favor of, or against, gay marriage. Insofar as marriage is a basic civil right, it may very well apply to homosexual couples as well as heterosexual ones. However, insofar as its status as a right partly comes from its being "fundamental to our very existence and survival," it may not.
The question facing America today is whether the concept of "marriage," already broad enough to include a man and a woman with different physical characteristics, is also broad enough to include two people of the same sex with different sexual characteristics from the norm. Do such people have the same "right to marry" as a heterosexual couple? Increasingly, Americans are saying yes.
Interracial marriage, gay marriage and American attitudes
Like interracial marriage, the majority of states today have banned gay marriage, either by constitutional amendment or legislation. However, unlike interracial marriage, such laws are not supported nearly as much by popular opinion. The majority of Americans in a recent poll support the legalization of gay marriage. It is strongly supported among liberals and independents, and even more strongly among the young.
Given the much broader and deeper appreciation for civil rights and tolerance in the US today, the anti-gay marriage laws have arisen in a time of general increasing acceptance of homosexuality. Rather than being representative of Americans' evolving attitudes, these laws are typically functions of a vocal but diminishing reactionary element in American culture.
The overall momentum of American history has decidedly favored more freedom and more tolerance for more people. Anti-gay marriage sentiment goes against this grain. Significant tolerance of homosexuality and even gay marriage--unthinkable in an earlier time--has arisen in a historical era of increasing liberalism in civil rights and cultural attitudes.
Same-sex marriage laws in the US
Future of American marriage
Today, long after the civil rights era, interracial marriage is at an all-time high. Large numbers of American children are mixed today, and any remaining stigma or discomfort with these relationships is shrinking rapidly. Almost 15% of all new marriages were interracial in 2008.
Nevertheless, roughly 40 years after the legalization of interracial marriage, there remain small pockets of staunch resistance. Almost half of Mississippi Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal in 2011. Among belief groups, white Evangelicals were the most opposed to interracial marriage in a survey, with 16% saying it was bad for society. The "unaffiliated" belief category (which includes atheists and agnostics) were the most in favor, with almost 40% saying it was good for society.
Even if and when gay marriage is a reality in most of society, the history of interracial marriage tells us that a minority--perhaps an influential minority, and certainly religiously-motivated--will be uncomfortable with the concept for a long time.