Race And Gay Marriage In Perspective

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. 

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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.

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