June 12 happens to be my stepdaughter’s birthday, but this year it takes on even greater significance to our family and thousands of other couples in the United States because it marks the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision making it legal in all 50 states for couples of different races to marry and live their lives without fear of harassment from law enforcement. A mere 45 years ago, Richard (white) and Mildred (black) Loving had to endure the threat of police knocking on their door late at night, rousing them from their bed and arresting them for daring to share a matrimonial bed together in Virginia.
It is a ludicrous notion, one that seems linked to a far different age — pre-Civil War or maybe during the days of Reconstruction — not a mere two years before I was born. To think that so close to my lifetime, there was a point when it would have been illegal for my wife and I to be together. Of course, the impact of the decision is still rippling through our society.
A February 2012 Pew research study on interracial marriage documents found that in 1980, interracial marriages accounted for only 3 percent of total marriages in the U.S. and fewer than 7 percent of new marriages. Thirty years later, 15 percent of new marriages are of mixed race/ethnicity, and among all current marriages interracial unions have reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent. More tellingly, when questioned as part of a survey on the subject, 43 percent of respondents believe that interracial marriage has had a positive effect on society; only one in 10 believe it has been negative.
This year, though, the anniversary should open a window to the future. The legal battle waged by the Lovings has been noted as a civil rights issue hinging as much on the notion of providing and protecting a set of constitutional and legal concerns ranging from spousal support, joint ownership of property, inheritance and health care.
Does any of this sound familiar? Maybe the question we, as a society, should be asking is how will the future generation judge us when they look back 45 years from now? Will we see more politicians and civic leaders on the covers of national magazines, coming out in support of gay rights? Will we be celebrating a meaningful anniversary for civil unions?
Mildred Loving, in statements during the years following her court case, stood in solidarity with the gay and lesbian community. Stripped down, the issue is one of family and how we define the ones we create, the ones that give birth to the future.
Art, as the best tends to, offers a clear and stirring reflection for us to consider. Patrick Wang’s recent film In the Family explores the relationship between two men in Tennessee raising the son of one of the partners (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 custody. The surviving partner (played by Wang) finds himself in a seemingly untenable fight with his partner’s sister.
The film does not directly describe the two men as gay, nor does it apply any other incendiary labels to the situation. And when Wang’s character finally secures 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 the raising of his son) and what are you willing to give up to achieve that goal (rights to the shared home and joint earned income)? Additionally, it is meaningful to note that the character, once he decides on his aims, refuses to see the family as enemies. In his mind, they have been and will continue to be family, his family. 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 and save not gay men, but two loving and socially active citizens. At some point, back in the late 1960s, Supreme Court justices had to dare to imagine Richard and Mildred Loving in the same light.
Let’s dare to be more loving.
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