Loving

Fifty years ago today the Supreme Court said, for the first time, that my wife Amber and I, and millions of families like us, have the right to live where we choose and travel where we like. Before that, generations of interracial couples faced absurd, impossible decisions: if we went to certain states to visit a sick relative, or to take a job and support our families, or went on vacation without taking precautions, or even made a wrong turn and ran into trouble on the road, our marriages were null and void and we could be arrested. These laws came into being before the American Revolution and they outlasted slavery, the Great Migration, and “separate but equal.”

Pride in New York falls at the end of June, and two years ago the scene was especially joyous: two days earlier the Supreme Court had torn through a decade-old state by state patchwork of pro- and anti-gay laws by ruling that same-sex couples had the right to marry no matter where the lived. Amber and I took in the parade, our own wedding just three months away. In the middle of the floats and the costumes and the noise, she turned to me, in tears, and asked “Can you imagine if we couldn’t get married?”

“I can’t,” I said.

It wasn’t true: I didn’t want to imagine it. I grabbed my phone and checked the history of interracial marriage laws, and was relieved, irrationally, when I saw New York had never legally banned unions like ours.

I’m fortunate enough to be a straight white man in America, and I’d never considered what it would be like for the public and legislatures and courts to debate my marriage and do what they wanted with it, knowing nobody would ever do the same to them. I hadn’t imagined the powerlessness, the frustration, and the painful decisions that must have followed.

Mildred and Richard Loving were forced to leave their home in Virginia in 1959 after the police tried, and failed, to catch them having sex in their own bedroom. Mildred was black and Native American and Richard was white. Their marriage was a crime, and sex would have been a second crime. They plead guilty to interracial marriage and moved to Washington DC, where they had been married the year before. If police found them in Virginia again, they each faced a year in prison.

Five years later, their conviction led to an ACLU lawsuit. They were not the first couple to challenge laws like these: states spent generations finding ways to ban marriages like theirs, like ours, more or less for the crime of offending whiteness and the natural order of things. For almost a century, judges around the country agreed that couples like the Lovings, and like us, had no right to marry. Virginia’s Supreme Court maintained that because they were different races, Richard and Mildred had no right to marry, and because they received the same legal punishment, their rights were not violated.

Over time a few courts had come to disagree. On this date in 1967, Loving v. Virginia struck down state bans on interracial marriage. If you’re reading this and Loving was not within your lifetime, it was likely within the lifetime of your parents.

Amber’s question showed me that our right to get married was that tenuous, and it was so frightening that I refused to consider it. But the only real thing that separates our family from the families that endured that discrimination is time.

The families these governments attacked were no different than we are, and they were entitled to the same chance at happiness. American racism is hard enough to deal with in 2017. I struggle to imagine what it was like when people turned their prejudices against families like ours into laws, and governments said aloud that people of different races couldn’t marry.

Here’s to Mildred and Richard, to Frederick and Helen, to George and Josephine, to Ann and Barack. Thank you for fighting for us so I didn’t have to. And here’s to the couples who could have been great love stories if a kinder and more sensible world had given them a chance. I am getting what you deserved, and I did not earn that advantage. I can only say I will not waste it, and I will try to make it better for the families that come next.

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One Comment

  1. Diane Kessler Seaman
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    You make the world a kinder place every day when you share your love and your story.

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