Reflections on Gay Marriage, Interracial Marriage, and Socially Progressive States

As a historian of equal rights and civil liberties, I was thinking recently about the similarities in the struggle to legalize interracial marriage and the struggle to legalize gay marriage, though of course there are differences as well as similarities. I thought of how some of the same individuals and institutions who opposed interracial marriage in years past later opposed gay marriage and how some of the same individuals and institutions who defended interracial marriage when such a position was not popular later defended gay marriage. For instance, in 2007, both Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the Loving v. Virginia case that legalized interracial marriage, and Bernard Cohen, one of the main lawyers who represented her, spoke out publicly in favor of gay marriage. Meanwhile, many in the nation mourned the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who went from labeling interracial marriage a sin to labeling gay marriage a sin. Until 2000, Bob Jones University had various anti-interracial dating policies. Now, the university continues to abhor gay marriage. The ACLU, the organization on whose behalf Cohen and Philip Hirschkop represented the Lovings, now strongly supports the legalization of same-sex marriage, as does my denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, which adopted a resolution in support of interracial marriage before the Loving decision was handed down. I decided that it would be interesting to examine the correlation between states legalizing interracial marriage and gay marriage early on. I admit I am not the first person to do this, but I am going to use a somewhat different method and take into account more recent developments.

With regard to laws against interracial marriage, states fall into four categories. The first category consists of the nine states where interracial marriage was never banned. The second category consists of the eleven states where interracial marriage was at one time banned but was legalized between 1780 and 1887; after 1887, a sixty-one year hiatus occurred during which no additional states legalized interracial marriage. The third category consists of the fourteen states that chose to repeal their bans on interracial marriage from 1948 to 1967. The fourth category consists of the sixteen states where interracial marriage was illegal until the Supreme Court intervened in 1967. So, I will examine the sixteen states where gay marriage is legal, in the order in which gay marriage was legalized there. I am excluding California from examination, because it was the U.S. Supreme Court that finally made gay marriage permanently legal in California. While I hail this development as a triumph for freedom, the method in which marriage equality came to California makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the state’s political culture.

1. Massachusetts: legalized interracial marriage in 1843 largely due to the efforts of abolitionists; was the second state to repeal its ban on interracial marriage, after Pennsylvania had done so in 1780.

2. Connecticut: never had a law against interracial marriage.

3. Iowa: legalized interracial marriage in 1851; third state to repeal its ban on interracial marriage.

4. Vermont: never had a law against interracial marriage. Perhaps we should say that Vermont, not Virginia, is for lovers.

5. New Hampshire: never had a law against interracial marriage.

6. New York: never had a law against interracial marriage.

7. Maine: legalized interracial marriage in 1883.

8. Washington: legalized interracial marriage in 1868.

9. Maryland: was the second state to ban interracial marriage and the last to voluntarily repeal it. The bill legalizing interracial marriage in Maryland was signed by Governor Spiro T. Agnew in 1967, just months before the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in the rest of the South.

10. Rhode Island: legalized interracial marriage in 1881.

11. Delaware: ban on interracial marriage not repealed until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1967.

12. Minnesota: never had a law against interracial marriage.

13. New Jersey: never had a law against interracial marriage.

14. Hawaii: never had a law against interracial marriage.

15. Illinois: legalized interracial marriage in 1874.

16. New Mexico: legalized interracial marriage in 1866.

It is apparent that a correlation exists between states legalizing interracial marriage and legalizing gay marriage. While only 18% of states in the Union have always allowed interracial marriage, 43.75% of states where gay marriage is legal have always allowed interracial marriage. Indeed, only two of the nine states that never banned interracial marriage (Alaska and Wisconsin) still do not permit gay marriage. Meanwhile, of the states that once banned interracial marriage and have now legalized gay marriage, 77.7% of them repealed their bans on interracial marriage before the 20th century. In the country as a whole, little more than a third of the states that originally banned interracial marriage legalized it before the 20th century. Certainly, the correlation is not a foolproof predictor of which states will voluntarily legalize same-sex marriage next. Michigan legalized interracial marriage in 1883, but its ban on gay marriage was struck down by a federal, not state, judge, and the decision is being appealed by the governor. Pennsylvania, the very first state to repeal its ban on interracial marriage still has a law against gay marriage. Yet it is also worth noting that of the sixteen states that banned interracial marriage right up until the Supreme Court intervened, only one currently allows gay marriage. It seems bigotries of a feather flock together.

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