Race And Gay Marriage In Perspective

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Gay Marriage.jpg 

Candy Holmes, left, of Washington, affixes a marriage equality pin to her partner of 14 years, Darlene Garner, on arriving at Superior Court to obtain their marriage licenses after the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage in Washington, on Wednesday, March 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

I woke up at two this morning, thinking about the the thread below, which got a little heated after a commenter argued that the fallen ban against interracial marriage made for a bad comparison with gay marriage. I've argued in the past that it was actually a very good comparison, but as I thought about it this morning, I found the analogy less convincing.

Let us, first, stipulate that the very endeavor of comparing "gays" and "blacks" is inherently problematic, incomplete and exclusionary. Still, I think some general truths can be teased out here. First, gays are presently waging an imminently just fight for the right to marry within their own community. In 1965, when Loving v Virginia passed, blacks already enjoyed the right to marry within their own community. Moreover, I think it's fair to say that many of blacks, at that time, either preferred it that way or were rather agnostic on the issue. 

In 1960, virtually every black person in America, either was directly--and immediately--affected by housing segregation or directly knew someone who was. To the extent that this was true of interracial marriage, it wasn't just true of black people, but white people too. In other words, whatever the justness of the fight for interracial marriage, it was never "a black issue" in the way that, say, voting rights in the South were. 

A comparison between gay marriage and the Civil Rights movement may put-off some--some--African-Americans because it misstates the context of Loving vs. Virginia. My sense is that most blacks supported the movement not because they wanted the right to marry white people, but because they wanted the right to compete with them.  Indeed, for almost a century blacks actively resisted the notion that civil right equaled interracial marriage, because racists had repeatedly clubbed the movement with charges of miscegenation. Note that in all the protests you see during the Civil Rights movement, very little of it is organized around interracial marriage. 

Much worse, the comparison with interracial marriage actually understates the evil of reserving marriage rights for certain classes of people. Banning interracial marriage meant that most black people could not marry outside of their race. This was morally indefensible, but very different than a total exclusion of gays from the institution of marriage. Throughout much of America, gays are effectively banned from marrying, not simply certain types of people, but any another compatible partner period. Unlike heterosexual blacks in 1960, the ban gays suffer under is unconditional and total and effectively offers one word for an entire sector of Americans--Die. For evading that ban means virtual--if not literal--suicide. 

A more compelling analogy would be a law barring blacks, not from marrying other whites, but effectively from marrying anyone at all. In fact we have just such an analogy. In the antebellum South, the marriages of the vast majority of African-Americans, much like gays today, held no legal standing. Slavery is obviously, itself, a problem--but abolitionists often, and accurately, noted that among its most heinous features was its utter disrespect for the families of the enslaved. Likewise, systemic homophobia is, itself, a problem--but among its most heinous features is its utter disrespect for the families formed by gays and lesbians. Of course African-Americans, gay and straight, in 1810 lacked many other rights that gays, of all colors, today enjoy. Thus, to state the obvious, being born gay is not the same as being born a slave. But the fact is that in 1810, the vast majority of African-Americans--much like the vast majority of gays in 2010--lacked the ability to legally marry.

My sense is that this is an argument that will sway very few bigots in the black community. But frankly, as black person, I've always considered the logic of my humanity to be my own selfish interest, as opposed to a tool for washing racists. Given that gays are often born into straight families, perhaps my viewpoint is a marker of privilege.  Still, I think it's worth considering the limits of reasoning with homophobes. The Civil Rights movement's strategy of appealing to white humanity--which was incredibly effective--has never been my way. 

Nationalism is, for good or ill, at my core. Thus I see the fight for marriage rights not as a fight for a squishy, gauzy "tolerance," but as a fight  for gay self-determination. The family is not just a building block of civilizations, but a defense against civilizations which, so often, prove themselves unworthy of the name. Thus gay marriage is, to me, not about relieving homophobes of their burdensome ignorance but about the right of gays to defend themselves against that ignorance.

In 1860, alchemists sought to build a country upon (among other things) their right to deprive blacks of their greatest defense--the family. So ardent were they in this hare-brained scheming, that America lost more than half a million of its bravest young men, two percent of its entire population, and arguably its greatest president. Countless, nameless deaths have come in the aftershocks. One hundred and fifty years later, having learned nothing, the alchemists have returned, insistent on their right to perpetrate the exact same folly upon gays.

They must be stopped.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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