Same-Sex Marriage Is Not Today’s Replay of Interracial Marriage

June 12 was the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that made interracial marriage legal across the United States. So someone was bound to publish an article, claiming that arguments made against same-sex marriage today are just like arguments made against interracial marriage fifty years ago. Therefore (so it goes) people who oppose same-sex marriage are on the wrong side of history, just like those who once opposed marriage between races.

I’ll be glad to agree with them. Sure, the arguments are the same. There’s no difference at all! Just like there’s no difference between a man and a mouse.

Take Dave Singleton’s article at Salon.com. For the most part it’s a story — a moving and very personal one, at that. He tells what it was like when he found out it was his godfather and uncle, Robert McIlwaine, who had argued the state’s position against interracial marriage before the Supreme Court in the Loving case.

It’s a great read, except for the errors he makes here:

The similarity in language used by lawyers arguing on both sides of interracial and gay marriage is undeniable. I’ve heard the same faulty logic used in Loving v. Virginia applied to gays and lesbians: Gay marriage is a sacrilege that will topple society, and heterosexual marriages will suffer. One state shouldn’t have to accept what another state legitimizes. And what about the kids Adam and Steve aren’t fit to raise? Unless reared by Adam and Eve, they will be messed up, scorned by society and miserable.

Yes, there’s “similarity” there. Humans and mice have a lot in common, too. Mice and men both have four limbs, two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth and hair. Therefore what’s true for men is true for mice, right? Sure — if you ignore all the differences. That’s what Singleton did here.

Those differences are plenty. I’ll focus on just four of them.

1. Common Beliefs Across All of Humanity

Unlike the situation with same-sex marriage, people in general have never taken it as given that there’s something wrong with marriage between races. As Francis Beckwith wrote in a very helpful 2010 Public Discourse article, common law never put forth any ban on marriage between races. That means that “interracial marriage was a common-law liberty,” of a sort that could only be turned back by laws specially written to have that effect. Some states wrote those laws to that end, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Same-sex marriage, in contrast, could never have been anything but an exception — if anyone even thought about it, that is, which never happened until just a few years ago.

2. Interracial Marriage was “Wrong,” Same-Sex Marriage Didn’t Exist

Some states made interracial marriages illegal — but just as an illegal left turn is still a left turn, those illegal marriages were still marriages. Those states might have considered them harmful marriages, the wrong sort of marriages, and ultimately illegal marriages, but they still considered them marriages. Beckwith reminds us (quite sensibly) that it would have made no sense to write laws against people of different races getting married, unless it was in some real sense possible for them to marry.

All this is completely different when it comes to same-sex marriage. It wasn’t the case (as it had been with interracial marriage) that same-sex couples were getting married, and lawmakers decided to call it off because they thought it was wrong or harmful. There was nothing there to call off. Same-sex marriage didn’t even exist. The Supreme Court in 2015 didn’t just declare it legal, as they had in the Loving case; the Court actually created a new thing that had never existed before, except in those few states that had already done the same thing before then.

In fact, as Beckwith points out, same-sex marriage has a lot in common with these former laws against marriage between races. Both of them rely on state coercion to define marriage in terms of something other than the natural, historic understanding of male and female uniting as a couple and to build a family.

3. Interracial Marriage was Banned, Same-Sex Marriage Wasn’t

Look at it this way: Same-sex marriage was never banned. It was never even “against the law.” While some states banned marriage between races, no state ever did that with same-sex marriage. Instead states took it to be non-existent simply by the way marriage was defined.

The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision two years ago was very different from Loving, for it reversed no ban. Instead it created a new definition for marriage. Rather than letting marriage be defined as it always has been: the lifelong committed union between a man and a woman, whose natural expectation is (for the great majority) the building of a family, the court made it something else entirely, the law. It became, for the first time, the committed union of any two adults who get along together, and probably have a romantic attraction to each other.

4. How Marriage is Defined

And that matter of how marriage is defined has always been at the heart of the case against same-sex marriage. The single most influential work against same-sex marriage was a paper by three scholars for the Harvard Journal of Law and Policy, followed by a book on the same topic by the same authors, both of them centered on the definition of marriage. There is something that marriage is, they say; there is something that makes marriage marriage, and that something necessarily includes the male-female aspect. Their reasons for that go far beyond the social effects Singleton lists in his article (and beyond what I have room to discuss here).

That’s not to say no one has ever put forth other arguments besides these. Singleton names a few of them (with a dismissive sneer). But those arguments are like ears, nose and hair: they tell part of the story, but they don’t omit some of the knowledge that counts the most.

Summary: A Man or a Mouse?

Let me summarize before I close.

Some states made decisions contrary to the rest of the country and against most of history. They decided marriage between races was a bad idea, so it should be banned.

In contrast to that, no state has ever banned same-sex marriage. Until an eye blink of history ago, no state ever took action against it because it was a bad idea. Instead, marriage was always, by definition a relationship for opposite-sex couples. There are good reasons it was defined that way. That definition and its reasons have always been at the heart of the case against same-sex marriage.

I’m sure Dave Singleton can tell a man from a mouse. I’m sure he knows differences matter, even where similarities may also exist. In the matter of marriage, though, he ignores real differences that really exist. Either that, or else he hides them.

Interracial marriage and same-sex marriage are just too different to be called the same sort of thing. (For more from the author of “Same-Sex Marriage Is Not Today’s Replay of Interracial Marriage” please click HERE)

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