That Julian Bond, former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a civil rights activist, was one of the first individuals to enter the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case may be surprising to those unfamiliar with his luminous career. A longtime advocate for the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, Bond expressed his support for marriage equality over a decade earlier in 2004. In a statement at that time, he refuted characterizations that treated activism to desegregate public spaces and to legalize same-sex marriage as identical movements. However, he acknowledged the overlapping nature of opposition to both struggles stating, “the people who would forbid gays from marrying in this country are those who would have made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus.” Bond’s well-publicized presence at the Obergefell proceeding reflects the rhetorical and material connections between the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the movement for marriage equality. Much of the public conversation over the Obergefell decision compared activism for marriage equality with black political efforts to secure equal rights, especially the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case that struck down bans against interracial marriages.
However, the connections between the history of race and legal recognition of same-sex marriage go beyond jurisprudence and overlapping tactics. Historians of sexuality should place the struggle for marriage equality not simply within a larger framework of the changing nature of marriage and the sexual parameters of citizenship but within efforts to dismantle the most visible aspects of white supremacy. Placing the struggle for marriage equality within the twentieth century movement for (and against) black racial equality changes our understanding of these critical social movements. I believe this approach highlights (at least) two important developments. First, it emphasizes the intertwined history of racial and sexual categories as a crucial context for same-sex marriage activism. Second, it illuminates the centrality of public memories of the Modern Civil Rights Movement to mobilize support and opposition for marriage equality.
Twentieth-century LGBT politics is deeply rooted in the longer intertwined history of race and (homo)sexuality in the United States. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, sexologists and physicians used presumed biologically based racial difference as a model in conceptualizing the hetero/homo binary. Similarly, in cities like Chicago and New York, spaces of interracial (black/white) leisure became associated with and incubators for same-sex intimacies. After World War II, the temporal overlap of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement with the development of Gay Liberation facilitated points of commonality, overlap and inspiration. Franklin Kameny founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. noted in 1969 that, “In the past, the Negro played the role of a second-class citizen. Now that he is gradually achieving his rightful place as a first-class citizen, there are those who are trying to replace the Negro with the homosexual. We do not intend to play a second-class role either.” Recent scholarship by Christina Hanhardt, Kevin Mumford and Timothy Stewart-Winter also highlights the historic connections between black and gay struggles for equality, as well as the development of black gay politics.
While the importance of Loving appears clearly in the United States Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges — Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the famous 1967 Loving v. Virginia case numerous times in his majority opinion — it also appears in early activism for state recognition of same-sex marriages. Virginia couple Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested and charged with violating their state’s miscegenation law (they were married in Washington, D.C. in 1958 and returned to Caroline County a few weeks later). The judge sentenced the couple to a twelve-month jail sentence if they did not leave the state. Unhappily relocated in the nation’s capital, the couple sought legal redress in 1963. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) their case received a unanimous favorable decision from the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren. The Loving case influenced a small cadre of gay rights activists who made legal recognition of same-sex marriages a central goal of 1970s gay political action. As the late historian Peggy Pascoe noted in her work on the early efforts of activists to pursue marriage equality, some gay activists sought — unsuccessfully — to convince judges that “the Loving decision made restrictions on gay marriage comparable to restrictions on interracial marriage.” The Minnesota Supreme Court in Baker v. Nelson struck down this logic in 1971. The emergence of same-sex marriage as a central LGBT political issue in the 1990s and the invalidation of sodomy laws in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision made comparisons between miscegenation law and same-sex marriage bans politically viable and important. Therefore, the importance of the Loving decision extends beyond juridical precedent to include a crucial source of inspiration for gay rights activists.
Considering the intersections of racial and sexual exclusion also raises crucial questions about the place of race and public memory in solidifying both opposition to and support for marriage equality. In January 2015, State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore ordered county clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in direct defiance of district court rulings issued by Callie V.S. Granade earlier that month. In the national media, the federal and state standoff evoked comparisons to Alabamian and Southern resistance to federally mandated racial integration and interracial activism for racial equality. A recent Huffington Post article, “Roy Moore Channels George Wallace in Stand Against Marriage Equality,” deliberately referenced the former governor’s infamous 1963 obstruction of a federal judge’s order that three African-American students be admitted to the University of Alabama. Similarly a U.S. News and World Report article also drew upon this legacy of southern intransigence with the headline, “A George Wallace for the 21st Century: Judge Roy Moore won’t turn back the tide on gay rights.” By comparing Wallace to Moore, this rhetoric mobilized public memories of Southern governmental intransigence to racial desegregation and implicitly compared discrimination against racial and sexual minorities. However, relying on this particular narrative in which the South is more conservative and resistant to “progress” obscures how public officials and private organizations across the country also sought to limit the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Crucially, opponents of marriage equality have also referenced the Modern Civil Rights Movement to legitimize their position and enhance their political clout. On April 22, 2015, the Coalition of African American Pastors, an anti-marriage equality group, presented Moore with the Letter from a Birmingham Jail Award to commend his attempts to stymie the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The name of the award sought to compare Martin Luther King Jr.’s missive about non-violent civil disobedience in the face of injustice to the chief justice’s decision to ignore the appellate ruling. In the aftermath of the Obergefell decision and subsequent attempts of state and local officials to undermine the law, the legacy of the Modern Civil Rights Movement crept into the comments of those unhappy with the decision. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee also called for civil disobedience to the ruling, asserting that ministers might “go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King.” Similarly, when Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in the fall of 2015, both Huckabee and Texas Senator Ted Cruz implicitly compared her non-compliance with interracial civil rights activists’ actions decades earlier. The ease with which conservatives have taken up the rhetoric of the Modern Civil Rights Movement not only fundamentally distorts the legacy of that movement but also obscures the substantive continuities between the struggle for racial equality and the struggle for LGBT equality.
Considering the history of race, sexuality and citizenship alongside the Obergefell decision is a promising approach for scholars and non-scholars interested in the past, present and future of LGBT politics. Such an approach reveals that racial and sexual identity categories will continue to be powerfully intertwined in the early twenty-first century public conversations about LGBT communities and political issues. It also indicates that the relationship between these categories (and historical moments associated with them) will continue to be (at various moments) mutually constitutive and conflicting. The recent spate of laws policing transgender access to public restrooms has already elicited comparisons to the rampant racial segregation of public facilities, including restrooms, during the first half of the twentieth century. However, the proliferation of these statutes within twelve months after the legalization of same-sex marriage mirrors various forms of backlash to the achievement of crucial (racial) civil rights victories, indicating that the need to protect marriage equality and expand the rights and protections afforded to LGBT people will continue for some time to come.
Jennifer Dominique Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender & Race Studies and American Studies at the University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa. She received her Ph.D. in American History from Princeton University in 2014. Jones is currently working on a book manuscript titled Queering An American Dilemma: Sexuality and Gender in African American Political Organizing, 1945-1993, which examines how the exclusion and/or marginalization of same-sex intimacies and gender nonconformity in American life substantively shaped black liberal political strategies and black-white race relations.
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