Barack Obama has finally come out. He has revealed what his critics and his supporters alike have long suspected: that he’s no longer a closeted supporter of same-sex marriage.
It’s fitting that he has taken this step, as the first biracial U.S. president. No doubt, it resonates with his personal history. The laws that are being passed today to deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples — not to mention the vitriol of the self-styled defenders of traditional marriage — call to mind the laws once in place in many states that banned blacks from marrying whites. Barack Obama was a little boy when the last so-called antimiscegenation laws were struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the unanimous decision, noting, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”
It’s no coincidence that Warren was also the justice who penned the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racially segregated schools. He understood how discrimination had been institutionalized by law, denying basic rights to entire classes of people. The case of Mildred and Richard Loving presented an opportunity to eliminate the antimiscegenation laws root and branch. Mildred was of African-American and Native American heritage. In 1958, she married Richard, a white man, in Washington, D.C. The couple then returned to their native Virginia, which banned marriages such as theirs.
Sheriff’s deputies barged into their home one night, with the hope of catching the two in a sex act, which was also illegal between the races in Virginia. They found them sleeping in bed. The evidence of their marriage certificate became the basis for charging the couple with the felony of being an interracial couple in the state of Virginia.
Until the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, children from such unions were considered illegitimate in many states. The surviving spouse couldn’t receive death benefits. Rights of inheritance were also thrown in doubt.
Does that sound like discrimination, unequal treatment to you? It should.
Gay and lesbian couples may not be charged with felonies anymore, but in many states they can’t marry or enter civil unions and benefit from the myriad of rights and responsibilities that go along with marriage.
That’s unequal treatment, too. People resist comparisons between past racial discrimination and current attitudes about homosexuality, but the similarities are undeniable.
Peel away the nonsense that misinforms attitudes about same-sex marriage — quotations from Leviticus, mixed up notions about pedophilia, the belief that people can somehow choose their sexual orientation — and it’s clear what banning same-sex marriage is about. It’s about discrimination.
The beliefs and biases of the majority are used against a minority group to discriminate. It is certainly what drove North Carolina to ban same-sex marriage, joining 29 other states.
More than four decades ago, it took a court challenge to shift that sort of thinking about interracial marriage. And it likely will take the same for gays and lesbians to marry in all 50 states. Some legal scholars think laws banning same-sex marriage could be challenged on the precedent of Loving v. Virginia.
Mildred Loving saw the connection. In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the decision (and the year before she died), she issued a statement: “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”
You’d think that a president born to an interracial union in the 1960s would not need to undergo a tortuous “evolution” before drawing the same conclusion. But, then, Obama’s past reluctance also reflects what an awesome struggle it will take to secure marriage rights for all Americans. The lines are drawn, and I believe we shall overcome.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.