Opposing Same-Sex Marriage Is A Lot Like Opposing Interracial Marriage

Cartoon by Kevin Siers, @KevinSiers

Cartoon by Kevin Siers, @KevinSiers

Conor Friedersdorf and I both oppose economically punishing people for opposition to same-sex marriage, or for having donated to the prop 8 campaign.

But Conor’s argument is, partly, that SSM opponents are morally superior to those who favored anti-miscegenation laws, and those who compare the two are being unfair to SSM opponents.

Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another. (In fact, it was inextricably tied to a singularly insidious ideology of white supremacy and black subjugation that has done more damage to America and its people than anything else, and that ranks among the most obscene crimes in history.)

Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.

One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians—that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.1

A few points:

1) I have interacted with orthodox Christians, critiqued their best arguments, and closely read many arguments SSM opponents have identified as their best (such as Robert George’s “What Is Marriage”?). As a co-blogger at the Institute for American Values blog, I had the opportunity to discuss issues with some of the country’s leading opponents of marriage equality, including David Blankenhorn, Elizabeth Marquardt, and Maggie Gallagher (David and Elizabeth, to their credit, have since switched sides on the marriage equality issue).

But I have to wonder, has Conor been exposed to the most sophisticated arguments in favor of anti-miscegenation laws?

Virginia Assistant Attorney General R. D. McIlwaine III, defending anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court in Loving vs Virginia, argued that interracial marriages, like incestuous or child marriages, should be prohibited for the good of the people in those marriages:

It is clear from the most recent available evidence on the psycho-sociological aspect of this question that intermarried families are subjected to much greater pressures and problems than those of the intramarried; And that the state’s prohibition of interracial marriage for this reason stands on the same footing as the prohibition of polygamous marriage, or incestuous marriage or the prescription of minimum ages at which people may marry and the prevention of the marriage of people who are mentally incompetent.

McIlwaine went on to argue – of course – that permitting interracial marriage would be bad for children.

Now if the state has an interest in marriage, if it has an interest in maximizing the number of stable marriages and in protecting the progeny of interracial marriages from these problems, then clearly. there is scientific evidence available that is so. It is not infrequent that the children of intermarried parents are referred to not merely as the children of intermarried parents but as the ‘victims’ of intermarried parents and as the ‘martyrs’ of intermarried parents.

Now, perhaps Conor would say that in context, McIlwaine’s arguments were “inextricably tied to a singularly insidious ideology of white supremacy and black subjugation,” and I’d agree. But McIlwaine himself would probably have denied that, and his arguments did not explicitly call on white supremacy, any more than the arguments of sophisticated opponents of marriage equality explicitly call on heterosexual supremacy. In fact, many opponents of interracial marriage, back when that was a respectable position, argued that their positions had nothing at all to do with prejudice, and that to tar them with such accusations was unfair. Sound familiar?

The distinction Conor makes between interracial marriage opponents and SSM opponents doesn’t actually exist. The more sophisticated arguments against interracial marriage avoided overt racial supremacy, instead relying on concepts like the good of society, the good of children, and (of course) natural and biblical law. Again, sound familiar?

2. Conor makes an incredibly weak argument when he writes that modern opponents of SSM are morally superior to opponents of interracial marriage because civil unions.

Opposition to interracial marriage never included a large contingency that was happy to endorse the legality of black men and white women having sex with one another, living together, raising children together, and sharing domestic-partner benefits as long as they didn’t call it a marriage.

Does that clarify the inaptness of the comparison?

In the context of the 1960s and before, the “they should have sex outside of marriage” position was simply not available to respectable public figures. So it’s true that the modern way for SSM opponents to be “moderates” was never used by interracial marriage opponents.

But interracial marriage opponents could and did position themselves as moderates, for instance by supporting the Utah approach (in which interracial marriage was a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and interracial marriages performed outside of Utah were legally recognized) rather than the more drastic North Carolina approach (which declared interracial marriage a “infamous crime” punishable with up to ten years in prison). Some interracial marriage opponents didn’t even want it made illegal at all, and argued that community stigma was the way to deter interracial marriages.

3. Like Conor, I oppose organized boycotts against individuals because they oppose same-sex marriage. But the distinction he draws between SSM opponents and interracial marriage opponents is simply wrong – a product of short historical memory. The opponents of interracial marriage were not inhuman monsters; they believed they were acting for the greater good, and did not consider themselves hateful bigots. Beyond a doubt, some of them were good people in many ways – charitable, kind to others (including to people of color). Some of them loved their children and were pillars of their communities. Some of them were at least as smart as any of us. And their better arguments did not overtly rely on white supremacy.

And it was nonetheless true that their anti-equality views were, as Conor says, “inextricably tied to a singularly insidious ideology of white supremacy and black subjugation.” Even when their arguments were not explicitly white supremacist, they still implicitly relied on white supremacy. Without an unspoken social consensus in favor of white supremacy – in favor of a belief that non-white people’s well-being has only trivial importance, and that sacrificing the well-being of non-white people is therefore justified even when the good being achieved is obviously nebulous at best – the seemingly “non-racial” arguments against interracial marriage had no foundation.

Exactly the same thing is true of anti-SSM arguments today, including the “sophisticated” arguments Conor refers to.2 The more sophisticated arguments against gay marriage carefully avoid overt homophobia. But they only make sense in the context of a homophobic society, which is why they increasingly lose purchase as our society becomes less homophobic.

Without an unspoken social consensus in favor of homosexual inferiority – in favor of a belief that lesbian and gay people’s well-being has only trivial importance, and that sacrificing the well-being of queer people is justified even when the good being achieved is nebulous at best – these seemingly “non-homphobic” arguments against gay marriage have no foundation. In this way, the “sophisticated” arguments against gay marriage are just as based in homophobia as the “sophisticated” arguments against interracial marriage were based in racism.

4. I don’t think that people who are opposed to marriage equality now – or, for that matter, people who were opposed to interracial marriage in the 1960s – are or were inherently bad people. Most of us are neither moral monsters or ahead-of-our-time moral prodigies. Instead, for the most part, we pick up our morality from what the people around us believe. Those of us who believe in marriage equality have, I am sure, a morally better position. But most of us don’t hold that position because we are inherently more moral people than those who disagree. Rather, most of us were just born into a place and a time in which we were raised to believe in the equal dignity and worth of queer people, and as a result we have either always been in favor of marriage equality, or easily adopted that position once it became socially acceptable.3

My point is not that those who oppose SSM aren’t responsible for their own views and choices. People make their own choices, and can choose to oppose beliefs they were raised with, as the huge numbers of people who have changed their minds and now favor marriage equality have proven.

My point, instead, is that a simple “moral monsters versus decent people” analysis – whether it’s Conor’s contrasting of interracial marriage opponents versus SSM opponents, or the folks on the left who want opponents of SSM driven from their neighborhoods – is an unrealistic model of a much more complicated human reality.

  1. Note: In Friedersdorf’s article, the “One thing I’ve noticed” paragraph is a footnote, but since I’m going to refer to it in this post I’ve “promoted” it. []
  2. Conor explicitly refers to “the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.” But that argument, which is based on natural law theory, is entangled with natural law arguments that homosexuality is intrinsically morally inferior to heterosexuality. []
  3. This is true not just for heterosexuals, but for everyone. Being a homosexual doesn’t make one immune to absorbing society’s homophobia, unfortunately, any more than Jews are immune to anti-semitism, etc etc.. []
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4 Responses to Opposing Same-Sex Marriage Is A Lot Like Opposing Interracial Marriage

  1. 1
    Phil says:

    Conor implies that the opposition to legal SSM includes a large contingency of people who do are not opposed to the idea of same-sex couples raising children together. I’m curious what his sources are for that, and/or his definition of “large contingency.” While I think the number of SSM opponents who also advocate to criminalize gay sex has shrunk, I don’t see a huge movement to endorse, support, or approve of gay parenting within that movement.

  2. 2
    Jake Squid says:

    Excellent post, Amp.

    (Note: change the last word in footnote 2 to “heterosexuality”)

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks, Jake! Correction made.

  4. 4
    brian says:

    Entirely too reasonable a position. Humanizing the ideological opposition will never catch on. Just call them verminous scum and be done with it.