I had intended to name the winner of yesterday’s free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, by Jo Knowles. I will do that tomorrow. I have something to talk about today.
Yesterday was a research day for me. I spent a few hours exploring the far-reaching effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on the shaping of America. Then I came home to see news reports that in North Carolina, Amendment One had passed.
And for a moment, I wondered in which time period I was living.
In researching DIVINERS, again and again, I have come up against America’s uncomfortable relationship with its national identity, a fractious, “Fight Club”esque twinned self of progress and regression that has produced some truly terrible laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens and only allowed in certain classes of immigrants. As Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts said of the Act, it was “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination.”
But it didn’t stop there. In 1888, the Scott Act prohibited Chinese laborers already in the U.S. who traveled abroad—say to China to see family—from returning. Ten years later, in 1892, the Geary Act extended the law and added new restrictions: All Chinese immigrants had to carry identification papers and proof of residence or face punishment or deportation. (For more on the Chinese Exclusion Act, please see Erika Lee's At America's Gates. Thanks, Lisa Gold.)
Moving on, we have the Immigration Act of 1917 which barred “homosexuals, idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, epileptics," all persons "physically or mentally defective” “anarchists” and any immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone."
Four years later, we get the 1921 Emergency Quota Act (“Jim, quick—we’ve got to keep out those foreigners, STAT! Set your Legalized Racism Gun to stun!”) which capped immigration quotas at 3%. But that wasn’t enough because somehow, those Jews and Italians kept getting in. Which brings us to the motherlode of racist/xenophobic legislation: the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. (No, I am not making that up.)
The Immigration Act of 1924 basically established limits on immigration through quotas based on the immigrant’s country of origin. (i.e., “Frightfully sorry, old boy, but we’ve already got our Italian and our Russian. We can’t take any more.”) In a nutshell: White America was afraid the new wave of non-Northern European immigration would threaten their “whiteness.” They wanted to set a quota, but how to do that if the latest census showed a huge increase in immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe? Simple: You go back and use the census of 1890 to set your quotas—you know, a time when you had more Northern Europeans representin’.
It was bigotry, plain and simple. Bigotry that was made law and shaped the course of our nation. Bigotry that was accepted as rule until it was repealed in 1965.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a Virginia state law, grew out of the Eugenics Movement (Racism! Now in pseudo-science form!), which was all about making America "genetically superior" (read: white), a “super race”, if you will. (A guy named Adolf Hitler was a huge fan of our eugenics movement.) The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 allowed for forced sterilization of American citizens considered not up to snuff, like epileptics, for one, and inmates, for another. (For reals. This happened. Look at Buck v. Bell and shudder. Then cry.) It also upheld the “one-drop rule”, which stated that anyone with “one drop” of African (or Native American or Asian) blood was defined as belonging solely to that race. Essentially, you were either all white or you weren’t at all white. This tore apart families and destroyed people’s identities. It also criminalized interracial marriage in the state of Virginia. (It was already banned but not a felony charge.)
Okay. Thanks for riding along through the quick history lesson. Now, let's jump ahead to 1963 and Loving v. Virginia.
Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, traveled to Washington, D.C., to marry since they couldn’t do that in their home state of Virginia where it was illegal. When they returned to Virginia years later, the police raided their home, caught them together, and charged them with a felony under the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They challenged the decades-old racist law as a violation of their rights as citizens guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Lovings took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1967, they won.
What does all of this have to do with yesterday’s vote, you may ask?
History is a beast with many tentacles, and it's good to keep your eye on them. History proves that sometimes laws are bad, that they can be enacted by scared, ignorant, and/or hateful people for terrible, racist, bigoted reasons. This seems to be a pattern in our history–to take away and take away, an erosion of the rights of a group of marginalized people which then becomes an erosion of the very soul of our nation.
In 2012, nearly a century after the Racial Integrity Act and 130 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, we are still talking about denying American citizens—AMERICAN CITIZENS!–full rights under the law.
Recently, I read a quote from activist and self-professed "gender outlaw" Kate Bornstein aimed at helping LGBTQ youth who were considering suicide (one of those many tentacles snaking out from laws which tell you you are not worthy, not equal, that you are shameful.) She said, "You can do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living…just don't be mean."
And this law isn’t simply bad or wrong or bigoted or, frankly, illegal. It’s just plain mean. Because same-sex marriage is ALREADY banned in North Carolina. But this law goes further. Here's the official language of the amendment: "A Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."
Under that language, the amendment denies ALL civil unions and domestic partnerships, gay and straight. Legal scholars are concerned that this legislation could affect child custody cases and nullify insurance coverage for many children. It could leave victims of domestic violence unprotected.Wills and trusts could be invalidated; partners could be barred from seeing one another in hospital as they would not legally be considered "family."
Most importantly, on a fundamental level, it makes LGBTQ citizens into a powerless faction whose rights are subject to a popular vote. Certain rights are inalienable. They are not up for a vote. If reading the various historical acts above doesn't convince you of that, then I'm not quite able to penetrate the walls of your pretty sugar castle surrounded by a moat of chocolate pudding.
So how does this continue to happen? Well, very often—well, actually about 99% of the time—God and the Bible are offered as rationale. This, to me, is a bit like using unicorn lore as a basis for legislation. Your religious beliefs are your own, but do not use them to take away the rights of others. God is not our President. He is not a Congressman from North Carolina.
"You don't rewrite the nature of God's design based on the demands of a group of adults,” argued Tami Fitzgerald, head of the pro-amendment group Vote FOR Marriage NC.
Demands? Demands. You mean a "demand" for equality? The “demand” not to be treated like pariahs by the state? The “demand” to be allowed to love the person you love and to forge a legally recognized union with that person, to build a life, possibly raise children with that person while enjoying the same rights and privileges afforded heterosexual American citizens? Yes, these do seem like the sorts of “demands” adults would ask for. And other adults, it seems to me, would recognize the fairness of these “demands.”
I’m not sure if I believe in God or not, but as a minister’s daughter, I have been exposed to the Bible here and there. And if the Bible is to be invoked, then let me invoke First Corinthians, 1-13. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, odds are good you’ve heard this one:
"But now remains faith, hope, love, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.”
It would seem to me that this carries “God’s design” and that it is North Carolina’s
legislators (and, sadly, 61% of its voters) who would like to “rewrite” that design.
Ironically, yesterday as I was researching hate legislation masquerading as “protective measures,” I was spending time with my good friends Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, who married in Massachusetts as soon as it was legal. They bantered and playfully bickered as married couples are wont to do. Theirs is a true marriage and it made me happy to be in their presence just as it saddens me to think that there are people who would work against their happiness. And to what end? To what purpose? In a world in which senseless, horrible acts take place every day, a world in which children go hungry, families can be blown up in market places, and a teenager can be shot and killed over a bag of Skittles—why, why, why would you legislate against love?
But why not listen to the words of Mildred Jeter Loving herself, who had this to say about same-sex marriage: “
"Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, 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. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.
I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about."
I like to think that you cannot stop love. That it will burn through hate given time and the perseverance of those who will fight for justice, of those whose love—righteous, hopeful, “the greatest of these”—will not be denied by the bigoted, wrong-headed ideas of the fearful and ignorant whose same fears and ignorance can be manipulated by those who stand to gain from such manipulation.
This morning, I made a contribution to the Human Rights Campaign. It can’t erase yesterday’s terribly disappointing vote, but it’s a step toward fairness. It’s an act of faith and hope on the path toward equality and love for all.
 The last law banning interracial marriage was in Alabama, and it was not struck down until 2000.