What Interracial and Gay Couples Know About 'Passing'

The misery of masquerading
Loving couple.jpg
Mildred and Richard Loving, shown here in 1965, were at the center of a landmark Supreme Court ruling on interracial marriage in 1967. (AP)

As I awaited news of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in the same-sex marriage cases last month, I began to reflect on all of the daily privileges that I receive as a result of being heterosexual -- freedoms and privileges that my husband and I might not have enjoyed even fifty years ago. For our marriage is interracial.

Given my own relationship, I often contest anti-gay marriage arguments by noting the striking similarities between arguments that were once also widely made against interracial marriage. "They're unnatural." "It's about tradition." And my personal favorite, "what about the children?" In response, opponents of same-sex marriage, particularly other blacks, have often told me that the struggles of gays and lesbians are nothing at all like those African Americans (and other minorities) have faced, specifically because gays and lesbians can "pass" as straight and blacks cannot "pass" as white -- as if that somehow renders the denial of marital rights in one case excusable and another inexcusable. In both cases, denying the right to marriage still works to mark those precluded from the institution as "other," as the supposed inferior.

But what does it mean to "pass"? And what effect does passing have, in the longer term, on a relationship and on a person's psyche?

Until a recent trip with my husband to South Africa, my understanding of the harms caused by passing came primarily through my research on interracial family law, and in particular through the tragic love story of Alice Beatrice Rhinelander and Leonard Kip Rhinelander, to which I devoted the first half of my recent book.

Alice Beatrice (Jones) Rhinelander was a working-class chambermaid who in the fall of 1921 met and fell in love with Leonard Kip Rhinelander, a wealthy white man who descended from the French Huguenots and was an heir to millions of dollars. After three years of dating, Alice and Leonard got married on October 14, 1924. However, unlike most weddings involving a member of New York high society, there was no wedding announcement about or celebration for this Rhinelander union. Instead, Alice and Leonard went to great lengths to keep their marriage a secret, choosing to live in the very modest home of Alice's parents, British immigrants George Jones, a "mulatto" or "colored" man who worked as a taxi driver, and Elizabeth Jones, his white wife.

Despite the Rhinelanders' best efforts at hiding their marriage, their secret was exposed. On November 13, 1924, the Standard Star of New Rochelle ran a story with the title "Rhinelanders' Son Marries Daughter of a Colored Man." Thereafter, reporters swarmed the house of the Rhinelander newlyweds in an attempt to uncover the mystery of Alice's race and the cross-class marriage of a member of one of New York's most elite families. Two weeks later, Leonard filed for annulment of his marriage to Alice. Leonard argued that Alice had committed fraud that made their marriage void by both falsely telling him she was white and failing to inform him that she was of "colored blood."

According to newspaper reports and the arguments by Alice's lead trial attorney, Lee Parsons Davis, Leonard and Alice were actually madly in love. The story was that Leonard filed the lawsuit only because of his father, who refused to accept Alice as part of the family, and that Leonard told Alice to fight the case to ensure that they could be together as husband and wife. But in 1920s New York, what did Leonard's request mean? New York did not have a law that banned interracial marriages, but socially speaking, Alice and Leonard could not be together unless she, too, was white. Consequently, everyone expected Alice to litigate her whiteness. Yet Alice surprised everyone when she did not attempt to prove her whiteness at trial. She did not try to prolong the snapshot moments in which she had previously passed as "white" in places like the hotels she frequented with Leonard and even at the government office where she and Leonard obtained their marriage license. Rather, Alice admitted that she was of "colored descent." Moreover, she argued that Leonard was aware of her race before the marriage.

Alice's litigation choices meant the end of the Rhinelander marriage. If Leonard won, she would still lose him: Annulment would require the Rhinelander marriage to forever be erased from the books. If Alice won, which, at the time, seemed impossible given the vast differences in both their class and race statures, she still could not remain Leonard's wife because a poor, non-white woman could never be the wife of the wealthy, prominent, and most importantly, white Leonard Rhinelander.

The actual annulment trial of the Rhinelanders was filled with drama. The drama included, among other things, racy love letters; tales of pre-marital lust and sex; and the exposure of Alice's breasts, legs, and arms in the courtroom to prove that Leonard, who had seen her naked before marriage, would have known that she was "colored" at the time of their nuptials. The jury returned a verdict for Alice, determining both that she was colored and that Leonard knew of her racial background before marriage and wedded her regardless. As Professors Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone explained in their book Love on Trial, "Few had believed a white jury capable of such an unbiased finding." Juror Henry M. Weil explained to the public after the trial, "If we had voted according to our hearts [which is the title of my book] the verdict might have been different." In other words, if they had followed their hearts, Leonard would have won instead.

Presented by

Angela Onwuachi-Willig is the Charles M. and Marion J. Kierscht Professor of Law at the University of Iowa. She is the author of According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family.

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