Marriage redefined: when America banned interracial couples from marrying

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In the US today, the marriage equality movement is often compared to the fight for interracial marriage. A look back shows many similarities between the two, but the history of the latter goes back much further…and in many ways, it’s even uglier.

To begin with, although LGBT people haven’t been treated the most kindly throughout most of US history, there was never any real equivalent of Jim Crow laws enacted specifically to oppress gay people. America introduced the idea of the “color line” during its colonial period, after which keeping the races separate became a very big deal. In 1691, Virginia passed the first law in North American history that restricted who was eligible to marry in regards to race rather than class, and as the concept of racial divides strengthened, the penalties for violation grew increasingly harsher.

Just like much of the US used to have laws against sodomy, many states banned “miscegenation,” meaning intimate relationships between people of different races. Unlike later anti-gay legislation, these laws were concerned with more than just sexual contact: mixed-race couples were also prohibited from even living together. Worse, rather than simply declaring that interracial marriages originating from other states were legally null and void, such unions (in addition to any other form of miscegenation) were criminalized—and most often considered a felony.

One example comes from a Colorado law passed in 1877, under which “All marriages between Negroes and mulattoes of either sex and white persons are declared absolutely void.” Those found guilty could be imprisoned for anywhere from three months to two years, or fined between $50 and $500 USD—adjusted for inflation, that’s $1,113 to $11,134.

In 1924, Virginia took an even harsher stand against miscegenation with the Racial Integrity Act. It ordered that all citizens be recorded at birth as either “white” or “colored,” and declared “It shall be a felony for any person wilfully or knowingly to make a registration certificate false as to color or race,” punishable by “confinement in the penitentiary for one year.” It also made the “one drop rule” into law, defining “white person” as applying only to those with no known “non-Caucasic” heritage, or to “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian.”

Further, the legislation contained what could be considered another redefinition of marriage: under Virginia law, it became illegal “for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian.”

Many of the arguments against interracial marriage will also sound very, very familiar to LGBT rights activists. As the International Business Times points out, objections to both same-sex and interracial marriage boil down to almost entirely the same topics, ranging from Because God Forbids It to “won’t someone please think of the children?!”

Common to both lists is the tired old argument that expanding the definition of marriage will lead to the downfall of society. In 1912, US Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry (D-GA) claimed “Intermarriage between whites and blacks…is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.”

An argument one wouldn’t expect to see against interracial marriage is that such unions can’t produce children—and yet that claim was made at least once, despite centuries of evidence saying otherwise. According to an archived page from the Redbone Heritage Foundation, it was claimed during an 1883 Missouri court case that “It is stated as a well authenticated fact that if the issue of a black man and a white woman, and a white man and a black woman, intermarry, they can-not possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies those laws which forbid the intermarriage of blacks and whites, laying out of view other sufficient grounds for such enactments.”

A 2013 article on Mediaite, “Bet You Can’t Tell The Difference Between These Actual Anti-Interracial And Anti-Gay Marriage Quotes,” even provides an example of bigots objecting to being called bigots: during the oft-cited Loving v. Virginia case, a psychologist submitted to the court, “I believe that the tendency to classify all persons who oppose [this type of relationship]as ‘prejudiced’ is in itself a prejudice. Nothing of any significance is gained by such a marriage.”

As of this writing, it’s too early to say for sure if the Supreme Court’s anticipated June 2015 ruling regarding marriage rights will prove to be the LGBT community’s equivalent of the Loving v. Virginia case—but it’s clear what the majority of Americans want.

As XKCD pointed out, “People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.”

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Just another multi-disciplinary writer and bundle of contradictions trying to figure out how to get the most out of life, and make a living while I'm at it.

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