What does the fight for gay rights have in common with the fight for racial equality? Some argue little to nothing. After all, when a gay man walks down the street not everyone knows what his sexual orientation is, but when a black man walks down the street, everyone knows what his race is and behaves accordingly. Despite this difference, Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell argues in the L.A. Times that the gay marriage movement has a lot in common with the interracial marriage movement of decades past.
"Opponents of same-sex marriage...argue that any comparison between same-sex and interracial relationships is deceptive," Powell said. "I disagree. ... I conducted interviews with more than 2,000 Americans on their notions of family, and the surveys revealed an undeniable similarity between current and past opinions regarding same-sex couples and current and past views about interracial couples."
Powell's interviews, conducted this year as well as in 2006 and 2003, revealed that the Americans most likely to oppose same-sex marriage belong to the same demographic of Americans who opposed legalization of interracial marriage in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. According to Powell, these folks are undereducated, hail from the South, are elderly and religiously orthodox. But it's not just the demographic that remains the same, the reasoning these Americans give for opposing gay marriage mirror the reasons earlier used to oppose interracial marriage. They argue such marriages are unnatural and ungodly, that the children raised by such couples will suffer and that these unions somehow undermine "real" marriage.
Ultimately, the courts made interracial marriage a reality in America. In 1948, nearly all Americans objected to interracial marriage, according to polls of the time, but the California Supreme Court ignored public opinion and legalized interracial marriage in the state via court case Perez vs. Sharp because bans on such marriages violated the U.S. Constitution. Soon after the California Supreme Court decided to legalize interracial marriage, more than a dozen other states followed suit. And in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned nationwide bans on interracial marriage, even though only a fifth of Americans supported interracial unions at the time.
Today, about half of Americans support same sex marriage. On Dec. 7, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear Perry vs. Schwarzenegger to determine whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in light of California's much debated Proposition 8, which Californians voted in favor of in 2008 to make same-sex marriage illegal. Same-sex marriage advocates such as Powell argue that the courts should decide this matter just like the courts decided to legalize interracial marriage decades ago.
Had the courts allowed public opinion to determine whether to legalize interracial marriage, "it is hard to tell how long it would have taken to remove anti-miscegenation laws from the books," Powell points out.
After all, as recently as 1998 and 2000, 40% of the voters in South Carolina and Alabama wanted to keep bans on interracial marriage in their state constitutions, despite the fact that such bans have long been illegal.