“There goes the neighborhood” is a phrase I grew up hearing from racist neighbors in the white, middle-class suburbia of my 1960s and 1970s childhood. The phrase — or better said, epithet — packed a lot of meaning. It expressed the opinion that when a black family moved into an all-white neighborhood, expectations were that the place was destined for hell and decay, taking property values down with it. “White flight” was the prescribed remedy.
The underlying assumption of the epithet was simple: the racist belief or fear that blacks were slovenly and criminally-inclined, and could only ‘pollute’ a white neighborhood and its denizens’ bloodlines.
Although racial, ethnic and religious minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans have different, albeit sometimes overlapping histories in this country, they have the commonality of all having been targeted with biased speech and laws.
When I first joined the marriage equality movement in 2003, the rhetoric coming from marriage discrimination proponents was immediately familiar. The words had been updated to fit the times, replacing “neighborhood” with “institution of marriage”, but the same message came though loud and clear: if gays are allowed to marry, there goes the neighborhood.
The parallels between arguments made today against same-sex marriage and arguments made in the 19th and 20th centuries against marriage for slaves and interracial couples have been documented by Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic in a friend of the court brief in the Proposition 8 case now before the United States Supreme Court. The brief’s authors summarize the phenomenon:
Marriage is a symbol of civil freedom, a marker of social equality, a badge of full citizenship, and a social resource of irreplaceable value. Yet this fundamental expression of human dignity has also been misused as a political sieve for separating individuals into a preferred class, to which society grants a broad complement of legal rights and privileges, and a lesser class, to which it accords less than a full measure of equality. Such was the case when slaves before Reconstruction and interracial couples in the days of segregation were denied full marriage equality.
Today, public debate over interracial unions has generally died since this Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967 such that we are now long past the time when anyone would seriously claim that race-based marriage equality threatens the moral fabric of our civilization, is contrary to nature, or is harmful to children. Yet these arguments, however discredited, have not disappeared altogether. Instead, they have been recycled to oppose same-sex marriage.
Below are paired examples of racist and anti-gay quotes provided in the brief to illustrate how today’s marriage discrimination proponents have recycled the rhetoric of their racist predecessors:
Like Marriage for Same-Sex Couples Today, Interracial Marriage was Once Widely Considered a Threat to Social Order and the Institutions of Marriage and Family
Racist: “It is through the marriage relation that the homes of a people are created … These homes, in which the virtues are most cultivated and happiness most abounds, are the true officinæ gentium—the nurseries of States. Who can estimate the evil of introducing into their most intimate relations, elements so heterogeneous that they must naturally cause discord, shame, disruption of family circles and estrangement of kindred?” Source: Green v. State, 58 Ala. (1877)
Anti-Gay: “The damage done to the minds, bodies and social welfare of this nation by drugs is nothing compared to the damage that same-sex marriage will do to this nation and its people.” Source: Brief of Westboro Baptist Church as Amicus Curiae (2013)
Like Same-Sex Couples Today, Interracial Couples were Once Condemned as Unnatural and Pathological
Racist: “The moral and physical development of both races … require that they should be kept distinct and separate … that connections and alliance so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law, and subject to no evasion”. Source: Kinney v. Commonwealth, (Va. 1878).
Anti-Gay: “[A] constitutionally mandated genderless marriage regime will effectively advance a particular conception of the moral equality of forms of sexuality, a conception grounded in the influential ‘comprehensive doctrines’ of some Americans, particularly among the Nation’s elites, but one contested by the comprehensive doctrines of many other Americans.” Source: Amicus Brief for the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage (2013)
Judeo-Christian theological interpretations often have been invoked to challenge marriage for both interracial and same-sex couples
Racist: “A man can not commit so great an offense against his race, against the country, against his God, in any other way, as to give his daughter in marriage to a negro—a beast—or to take one of their females for his wife.” Source: Ariel [Buckner H. Payne], The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status? (1867)
Anti-Gay: “[T]he devil wants to blur the lines between right and wrong when it comes to family structure”; “marriage is the symbol of our salvation and the symbol of our relationship with Christ”; that God is “giving America a second chance”; and implored voters to “stand up for Jesus Christ” and not deny Jesus like Peter did”. Source: A pro-Proposition 8 ad (2008)
Racist: “You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.” James Graham Cook, The Segregationists (1962), quoting Leviticus 19:19
Anti-Gay: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Source: Ubiquitous, quoting Leviticus 18:22 (Laurel’s note: e.g. Family Research Council)
Like Same-Sex Parenting Today, Interracial Parenting Was Once Considered Damaging to the Physical and Psychological Health of Children
Racist: “If allowed to live with her mother [and black stepfather, the child] ‘will not grow up and mature as a normal white child should but rather will be rejected, shunned and avoided by children of both races and as a result her entire life could, and unavoidably would, be adversely affected.” Source: Romano, Race Mixing: Black and White Marriage in Postwar America (2003)
Anti-Gay: “[T]he man-woman marriage institution is essentially child-centered; a genderless marriage regime ‘neutralizes the law’s ability to say that children need their mothers and fathers and reifies a new conception of marriage that is centered on the couple rather than children,’ teaching that marriage is a private relationship between two people created primarily to satisfy the needs of adults.” Source: Brief for Coalition for the Protection of Marriage (2013)
The Howard University brief concludes:
In the final analysis, there is nothing new in the arguments against same-sex couples having the freedom to marry. Underneath the surface politeness of many of the submissions by Petitioners [Prop 8 proponents] and their amici lie the same uncivil sentiments that animated the opposition to interracial marriage: the words may be less uncharitable, the phrasing less intemperate, but the debasing and degrading ideas are at bottom the same. However much opponents of marriage for same-sex couples may insist “this time it is different,” there remains an appalling familiarity to the refrain that allowing same-sex couples the same human dignity as everyone else will threaten social order, degrade individuals, and harm children. We suffered through the same awful dirge when slave owners sought to preserve the ban against slave marriage and segregationists opposed interracial marriage. Then, as now, some claimed with all sincerity and unwavering conviction that if African-Americans were accorded full human dignity, our society, our morality, and our faith would come to grief and lay in ruins.
But the certainty and monotony with which some will always sound the death knell for society, morality, and faith, just because two adults choose to marry, cannot obscure the reality that we heard virtually the same arguments for almost three hundred years to justify preventing two black people from marrying and then a black man from marrying a white woman. Nor, when all is said and done, can these jeremiads about how marriage equality for same-sex couples will lead to our final slouching toward Gomorrah obscure the reality that it is “an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.”
The brief contains a lot of nuance and detail that can’t be easily summarized here. Click here to read the whole document. But the excerpts above are enough to prove that anti-gay “traditional marriage” advocates are truly traditional in at least one sense: they use traditional racist talking points in their effort to ban marriage for same-sex couples.