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.

Several years later, the Rhinelander marriage officially ended with a divorce in Las Vegas. Life after the trial was depressing for both Alice and Leonard. Upon divorce, Leonard became a recluse. Even before the trial began, Leonard was shunned and excluded him from all "clubs" to which he had previously belonged, and disowned by his family, barred from the family business until he obtained the divorce. The Detroit Free Press reported his removal from the New York Social Register, on which his family was listed: "Kip stands outside the fold the symbol of a proud family's shame. Kip now stands on a social register par with his Negro bride, who last spring sailed into the March supplement of the register for one fleeting cruise under her husband's colors, but was dropped overboard in the next edition."

In the end, Leonard never recaptured the life he had before Alice and certainly not the type of life he had with Alice. He died at the young age of 34 in February of 1936 without ever falling in love again and without remarrying.

Alice lived until she was 89 years old, but never partnered with another man. In 1989, when Alice passed away, she left us with one last reminder of just how she really "died" more than sixty years earlier in 1925 at her infamous trial's end: she buried herself with a headstone that read "Alice J. Rhinelander."

Such was my understanding of "passing" in marriage before I had any personal experience in it: I knew to what lengths Alice Rhinelander had gone, despite being deeply in love, not to have to endure it. Yet even the most heartrending of tales often fail to bring home the enormity of day-in, day-out anxiety and deception that "passing"--whether for interracial couples or for homosexual couples--entails.

Before my husband, Jacob, and I left for South Africa at the end of 2012, we pondered whether there would be any moments and, if so, how many moments there would be when we would have to pass -- not as individuals of one race, as Alice and Leonard did -- but instead as friends, rather than the married couple we are. Friends had relayed stories of difficulties traveling to this country so recently freed of apartheid, and we wanted to be cautious.

What I ultimately discovered during our time in South Africa is that I still had much to learn about the damages that stem from passing. Peggy McIntosh in 1988 wrote a groundbreaking piece about white privilege. I was, in many ways, oblivious to the full extent of the heterosexual privilege that I possessed in the United States, even as a member of an interracial marriage. Although Jacob and I had experienced the fears of physically being pulled apart by strangers on the street, we, unlike the famous interracial Lovings, who took their case to the Supreme Court in 1967, had never been arrested, jailed, and threatened with a lengthy prison sentence.

As I was recently re-reading an excerpt from my journal from South Africa, I was reminded of just how little, then, I understood about the psychological harms of long-term passing. I had underestimated the severe emotional toll of hiding an important part of my authentic self, my life partner. I had miscalculated the exhaustion that would come from having to think carefully about every look and touch that he and I might venture to share. I had taken too lightly how passing sends implicit internal messages that one's relationship is wrong. I had undervalued the freedom I had, to some extent, come to take for granted. Describing the fears that I experienced about being part of an interracial couple just during my husband's and my travels down to South Africa, I wrote in relevant part:

I am more wary here than in most places in the United States about stealing a touch, a glance, a kiss with my love. ... In my head, I imagined that Jacob and I would simply refrain from public displays of affection to avoid any harms ... I had imagined passing only in snapshots rather than marathon hours. Until I had to weigh each and every moment of potential intimacy with deliberate thought, and at all times, with fear of what any small action could bring upon us, I did not realize how often I--one who likes to think of herself as self-conscious about public displays of affection--stole a glance with Jacob, gave him a knowing smile, engaged in a short snuggle, or received quick sweet pecks on the lips. . . .

Re-reading my own journal brought chills to my soul, particularly when I reached a section recalling Jacob's and my awkward indecision in an airport over our custom of having him hold both our passports. "No, keep it," I had said. "Be safe. If anyone tries to attack you, tell them you have to make sure your wife gets her passport back. . . ."It is impossible to appreciate, until it is thrown into question, the simple importance of just getting back safely to be with the one you love.

Jacob and I both laughed out loud at our silliness, our paranoia, and our "exaggerated fears." After our jokes, our natural instincts were to hug each other as we laughed, moving just as naturally towards a kiss, a kiss that I pulled away from or that I told myself we both pulled away from because we were so out in the open. . . .

I have a close friend -- I'll call her Stephanie. She is in a relationship with a woman who cannot come out for fear of losing her job. I have had many conversations with Stephanie about her and her girlfriend's fears of being exposed, their close calls, and the uncertainty of not knowing when they can ever end their silence about and suppression of their love -- their "passing." As the experience of Carla Hale, a well-regarded, veteran school teacher who was recently fired after she simply named her long-term partner in her mother's obituary has shown us, their fears are real.

Alice Rhinelander passed originally by denying her blackness. I passed by denying my marriage. Stephanie and her love are passing both by denying their relationship and denying their sexual orientation.

Not too long ago, my friend Stephanie told me that another friend remarked, listening to her laments, "This, too, shall pass." When I heard this popular saying, one that I have heard used and have used myself so often to provide hope for others in despair, repeated in this context, I stopped in my tracks. The words rang differently in my head. They felt uneasy. All I could think was "These two should not have to pass."