The Fight For Love Continues

The political shift in America threatens same-sex marriage rights and civil rights advances that made the Loving decision possible.

Richard and Mildred Loving in their living room. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage, cited the Warren Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision multiple times. “Dennis Parker, director of the racial justice program for the ACLU, says the humanity of the Lovings’ story was crucial ‘“When Life magazine had that photo spread, what it showed was a couple in love,” he says.

June 12, the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision, has become known in many places in the U.S. as Loving Day, It’s an occasion to celebrate the memory of this historic case, and ensure that generations to come hold its lessons close to their heart.

But no gains are ever permanent, as long as those who hold hate in their hearts find political power within their grasp. That’s another reason to remember the Loving case; it’s still relevant for the 21st century.

Richard Loving, who tragically was killed by a drunk driver in 1974, probably would be stunned by how the Supreme Court decision that bears his name has rippled outward.

He didn’t live to witness the disappearance of the old taboos and the wide acceptance of marriages between people of different races at every economic level, right up to the hottest celebrity couples. He just missed seeing the issues of interracial marriage played for laughs, through the characters of Helen and Tom Willis on the sitcom “The Jeffersons.”

The Life magazine photo shoot was re-created for the Focus Features film “Loving.” Then and now, media images of couples, be they in print, television or theatrical films, have broken down prejudice and opened the public to broader definitions of family.

Most of all, Richard Loving never witnessed the establishment of same-sex marriage as the law of the land by the Supreme Court in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, a decision that itself cited Loving v. Virginia multiple times.

“I think there was a deliberate strategy to follow the lead of Loving, to portray the people who were the parties as human,” says Dennis Parker, director of the racial-justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union, of the Obergefell case.

Films like “Shadows” and “A Patch of Blue” helped clear a path for the Loving decision. Parker thinks popular culture, including the sitcom “Will and Grace,” also helped tip the court to approve same-sex marriage rights. “It wasn’t just what you do in the courts, but how you change the hearts and minds of people. That’s something that Hollywood can do.”

As the Lovings learned, though, government is sometimes ahead of the people, sometimes behind. Given his experiences with government’s often arbitrary and absurd restrictions and its misuse of its police powers, Richard Loving might have been suspicious that the progressive achievements of his time could be rolled back. And after the political events of 2016, millions find themselves sharing that suspicion.

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As a new political wind blows through Washington, hints have emerged — some of them perhaps exaggerated, many grounded in provable fact — that the incoming administration’s top executive officers may be at best indifferent, and perhaps opposed, to the civil-rights advances of the 1960s and newly expanded marriage rights.

Joy Reid, MSNBC political analyst and host of “AM Joy,” sees Washington’s swing to the right as part of a historical pattern. “Whenever we’ve had these reconstruction periods, after the Civil War and then after the 1960s with all of the civil rights legislation, and then after the election of the first black president, you have a backlash that comes after that, that has been usually swift and usually ferocious. It’s happening, really, every time.”

That backlash has been about race. Will it apply to sexual orientation and gender identity as well this time? Might LGBT people find their marriage licenses treated with the contempt of the framed one the Lovings hung on their wall in 1958, which police ignored while arresting them?

Reid sees potential danger in the appointees to the Supreme Court from a President Donald Trump. “You had a Supreme Court who would decide in favor of the Lovings, whereas now, a Trump Supreme Court, once he fills up that last seat, you can almost predict that it will be quite the opposite.” But the ACLU’s Parker doubts that even a more conservative court would easily roll back Obergefell, never mind Loving.


Just as films and TV helped Americans accept interracial marriage, shows depicting gay men and lesbians, including “Will & Grace” (above), encouraged acceptance of LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage.

Just as films and TV helped Americans accept interracial marriage, shows depicting gay men and lesbians, including “Will & Grace” (above), encouraged acceptance of LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage.

Then there’s the Justice Dept. In 1964, the attorney general of the United States specifically directed the attention of a black woman in Caroline County, Va., to an organization that might help her fight their arrest and wrongful exile for having married a white man. What would his newly designated successor, Jeff Sessions, do with such a request?

Actor, activist and writer George Takei, who spent part of his youth in an internment camp that imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II, says, “We intend to fight the nomination of Jeff Sessions, tooth and nail. He does not belong at the head of the Department of Justice.” Takei is concerned about Trump’s calls to register Muslims that echo the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

Reid, too, is concerned about the Sessions nomination. “It used to be that in the 1960s, the Loving era, as bad as local law enforcement and local justice systems would be, you had the [Nicholas] Katzenbach justice department or the Robert Kennedy justice department,” she says. “You had an attorney general who at least had some human sympathy for the people who were marching in the Civil Rights movement, and who would express the desire to see positive change, and to see full civil rights for African Americans.”

The first interracial kiss on network TV came in 1968 between “Star Trek’s” Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura. “Trek” regular George Takei says the cast discussed anti-miscegenation laws and his time in a WWII internment camp during breaks.

Reid says her biggest concern is that the Trump Justice Dept. will be headed by a man whose history would have put him on the wrong side of the Loving case, and would have prosecuted the NAACP for voter fraud for registering southern blacks.

Sessions is said to have joked that he thought the KKK was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana. He has a record of racist statements. Are those words a true reflection of his beliefs? Or are his protestations of having fought for civil rights well-founded?

Inside the White House itself, what policy stances and interventions will the new President’s chief strategic adviser Steve Bannon attempt to advance? Can we accept his assurances that he has “zero tolerance” for the “racial and anti-Semitic” views that proliferate on the news site he ran, (at least among its readers)?

The political ascension of Bannon’s strain of right-wing populism has emboldened white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who have raised both their voices and their hands in support of resurgent racism. An Old Navy ad from spring 2016 was met with public abuse from advocates of racial purity. The Southern Poverty Law Center saw a spike in reports of acts of hate and intimidation immediately after the election, including anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-woman and anti-Semitic acts, though that surge soon subsided. There have been high-profile attacks on interracial couples.

Todd Haynes’ evocation of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, “Far From Heaven,” went farther into race relations and interracial love than Sirk could. Sirk himself had dealt with race relations in “Imitation of Life,” itself a remake of a 1934 pic starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. For many in modern audiences, the 1950s mores at play in “Far From Heaven” seem backward.

LGBTQ rights seem to hang in the balance. While the incoming President hasn’t been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage rights, the new vice president and much of the cabinet have been, and that has made the arguments in Loving suddenly fresh again. Jeff Zarrillo one of the co-plaintiffs in the case that eventually overturned the initiative banning same-sex marriage in California, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, says “the entire argument with regards to marriage equality was that there was still a minority that was being oppressed. … The parallels of Loving v. Virginia with Perry v. Schwarzenegger were just uncanny.”

Zarrillo’s husband Paul Katami, also a co-plaintiff on Perry, says fears are rising that minority rights again will be used as wedge issues to gain votes, and that people’s lives will be used as political footballs. “What we need to do more than ever,” says Katami, “is coalesce, not just in our communities but among the different communities that are being disenfranchised. So that in the end we can prevail by not only leaning on the law, but to try that in the court of public opinion.”

Ultimately, says Katami, the story of the Lovings is a metaphor. “It boils down to the human experience, to liberty and justice and freedom, and the simple act of falling in love. You can use love in any different capacity that you want: love of life, love of country, love of a job, love of another, but it really comes down to the freedom to express that love with the full protection of the law. So ultimately it’s about freedom, about being respected and not being treated as a second-class citizen.”

— Bob Verini

This is Loving