On November 4, California voters will face the choice of whether they wish to amend our state's Constitution to take away the existing right of same-sex couples to marry. The passage of Proposition 8 would mark the first time in our state's history that the Constitution has been amended to rescind rights, rather than to grant them.
You'd think the choice were pretty obvious, right? Yet regardless of which poll you read, it's clear California is split tightly down the middle on this issue, and surprisingly, African Americans and Latinos -- two minorities with long histories of facing discrimination themselves -- both have majorities of voters supporting elimination of marriage rights for gay and lesbian people.
In light of that, I thought I'd recount brief a story from history that I hope will serve as a guide to all voters.
In the debate that has raged since the California Supreme Court first legalized same-sex marriages in May of this year, parallels to our nation's struggle with interracial marriage have been both drawn and disputed.
Even if the parallels aren't exact, there is still much we can learn -- about love, about morals, and about judgment. The most poignant of these lessons lies in the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and white man whose out-of-state marriage led to their arrest in Virginia, and later sparked the seminal US Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia (1967), which invalidated all laws against interracial marriage in the United States.
In 1958, the year the Lovings married and were arrested, public opinion and prejudice against interracial couples ran high throughout the country. Half the states had formal legal bans against interracial marriage, two of them in state Constitutions. In the south, both judges and preachers thundered against miscegenation, citing both their personal interpretation of the Bible and dire threats to public morality. Sound familiar? One state where such attitudes prevailed was the Commonwealth of Virginia, where miscegenation was punishable by imprisonment. To circumvent that ban, Mildred and Richard Loving traveled to the District of Columbia, where they were legally married.
Soon after returning to Virginia, the Lovings were arrested by deputy sheriffs who burst into their home in the middle of the night, tipped off about illegal interracial cohabitation. Their marriage certificate was no defense. Mildred and Richard were jailed and tried for violating the Commonwealth's Racial Integrity Act. To avoid prison, they pleaded guilty and agreed to be exiled and not return to Virginia for 25 years, not even to visit family.
Mildred Loving passed away this summer. While she was never a political or public person, she did, in June 2007, issue a rare, poignant statement for the 40th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision. In it, she affirmed her belief in everyone's right to marry the person they love.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry."
This then, lies at the heart of the choice Californians face with Proposition 8:
Are we to honor our state's tradition of treating everyone equally, enshrined in moments like our own Supreme Court's 1948 decision, which overturned the ban on interracial marriage two decades ahead of our nation's Supreme Court? Or are we to follow the example of a state like Alabama, which held on to its Constitutional ban until the year 2000?
Irrespective of how some may feel about marriage or activist judges, we should all take a moment to actually read our Supreme Court's calm and eloquent reasoning on the right of same-sex couples to marry. Much in that decision echoes the poignant message of Mildred Loving. Speaking for the majority of the Court in May 2008, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote:
"The right to marry is not properly viewed simply as a benefit or privilege that a government may establish or abolish as it sees fit, but rather that the right constitutes a basic civil or human right of all people."
So: On November 4, who will you stand with: Mildred Loving, or those who presumed it upon themselves to legislate whom she had the right to love?