June 12th happens to be my stepdaughter’s birthday, but this year, it takes on even greater significance for our family — and thousands of others in the United States. This year’s Loving Day marks the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage in all 50 states, so couples of different racial backgrounds could finally celebrate their love publicly and live their lives without fear of harassment from law enforcement. A mere 45 years ago, Richard Loving (who happens to be white) and his wife, Mildred (who happens to be black) had to endure the threat of police knocking on their door late at night, rousing them from their sleep and arresting them for daring to share a matrimonial bed together in their home in Virginia.
It’s a ludicrous notion, and it’s one that seems linked to a far different age than the 20th century most of us remember — say, pre-Civil War or maybe during the days of the Reconstruction, not a mere two years before I was born. To think that there was a point in recent history when it would have been illegal for my wife and me to be together, and so close to my lifetime, too. Of course, the impact of that decision is still rippling through our society today.
How marriages have changed over the past half-century
A February 2012 Pew Research Center study on intermarriage trends reveals that in 1980, interracial marriages accounted for only 3% of all marriages in the U.S. — and less than 7% of new marriages. Now, a little over 30 years later, 15% of new marriages are between couples of mixed race/ethnicity, and among all current marriages, interracial unions have reached an all-time high of 8.4% in the U.S. More tellingly, when questioned as part of a survey on the subject, 43% of respondents felt that intermarriage has had a positive effect on society; only 1 in 10 believed it has been a negative development.
This year, though, the anniversary should open a window into America’s future. The legal battle waged by the Lovings in their landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967), has been noted as a civil rights issue that addresses the notion of providing and protecting a set of Constitutional rights as well as legal concerns ranging from spousal support, joint ownership of property, inheritance, and health care. Does any of this sound familiar?
Could legalizing same-sex marriage be next milestone?
Maybe the question we, as a society, should be asking is: How will future generations judge us when they look back 45 years from now? Will we be celebrating a meaningful anniversary for the recognition of civil unions? In statements made to the press during the years following her own victory in court, Mildred Loving stood in solidarity with members of the GLBT community. Stripped down, the issue becomes one of family and how we define the ones we create for ourselves — because these are the unions that will give birth to the future.
In my opinion, the best kind of art tends to offer a clear and stirring reflection for us to consider. Patrick Wang’s recent feature film, In the Family, explores the relationship between two men in Tennessee raising one partner’s son (from a previous marriage — the wife died during childbirth) and the disruption that occurs when the biological father dies in an auto accident, leaving no updated and/or explicit instructions regarding the child’s custody. The surviving partner (played by Wang) finds himself in a seemingly untenable fight with his partner’s sister over who should raise him.
The film does not directly describe the two men as “gay,” nor does it apply any other incendiary labels to their situation. And when Wang’s character finally secures legal representation, his lawyer lays down a framework that zeroes in on the heart of the matter. What are you willing to accept as a resolution (the chance to be involved in raising a deceased partner’s son), and what are you willing to give up in order to achieve that goal (rights to the shared home and joint earned income)? Additionally, it is meaningful to note that Wang’s character — once he’s chosen his goals to aim for — refuses to see the opposing family as enemies. In his mind, they have been — and will continue to be — family; his family, even. Talk about a loving approach.
During a recent homily at Mass, my priest told the story of a German archbishop who defended a gay parishioner on a parish council. The archbishop invited the council member and his partner to dinner to get to know them… not because he saw them as gay men needing to be saved, but because they were two loving and socially active citizens. At some point back in the late 1960s, the Supreme Court justices had to dare to imagine Richard and Mildred Loving in a very similar light.
“The History of Loving Day” was initially published on the Match.com site Happen Magazine