Last edited: February 06, 2005

Old Argument but with a New Target

Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 2003
P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Fax: 215-854-4483

By Jonathan Zimmerman

The Santorum flap won’t go away. Last week, Rick Santorum made national headlines by supporting the Texas anti-sodomy law. This week, gay-rights activists released a 2001 fund-raising raising letter in which Santorum linked same-sex unions to terrorism. Like al-Qaeda hijackers, Santorum suggested, gay sex and marriage threaten the very heart of our body politic.

Although the White House has remained silent, Congressional GOP members have mounted a vigorous defense of Santorum. On Tuesday, Senate majority leader Bill Frist said Santorum—the third-ranking Republican in the Senate—retained “the full, 100 percent confidence” of his party. House majority leader Tom DeLay praised Santorum for “standing on principle,” saying gay sex “undermines a lot of moral questions that we have in this country.”

That’s what white Americans used to say about sexual relations between different races. In 1929, police in Sheffield, Ala., burst into the home of Elijah Fields, an African-American man. They found him in an unlit bedroom with Ollie Roden, a white woman. Although Fields and Roden were fully dressed, they were arrested under an Alabama law that made it illegal for a white woman and a black man to marry or “live together in adultery or fornication.”

A local jury convicted Fields, who was acquitted on appeal for lack of evidence: He and Roden were not seen having sex. But the courts never questioned whether the state could bar them from doing so. Like interracial marriage, white Alabamians presumed, interracial sex was a “crime against nature” and a sin against God.

The Fields-Roden episode is recounted in Interracial Intimacies, a recent book by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. His book should be required reading for Rick Santorum and any other American who wants to prohibit gay sex and marriage. As Kennedy shows, every argument that we now hear against gay unions was once used against interracial ones, once called “miscegenation.”

The first argument against miscegenation invoked America’s social order, which required a strict differentiation of the races. “Shall America remain white?” one worried physician asked a medical conference in 1924. Interracial unions foretold “race suicide,” the eugenic nightmare that haunted white America well into the 1960s.

Santorum sees gay sex and marriage as a threat to our social order, though to him this order rests upon “the family” rather than on “the race.” If we abandon our taboos on gay sex, he claims, our prohibitions against other perversions—including incest and polygamy—will fall by the wayside.

But why? Incest clearly injures children, while polygamy would raise a host of serious problems surrounding property rights, child custody, and more. Gay sex—between consenting adults, remember—wouldn’t change any of that.

The second argument against interracial relationships rested on religion. “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red,” wrote a Virginia judge in 1965, upholding the state’s so-called Racial Integrity Act. “The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Turn on so-called Christian radio, and you’ll hear the same thing about gay sex: It violates the will of the Lord. In a less sectarian vein, Santorum simply deemed them unnatural: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality,” he said. “It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

Man on dog?

The Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriages in 1967, so Elijah Fields and Ollie Roden would now be free to wed, if they wished. But not John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, the two men involved in the Supreme Court case testing the Texas anti-sodomy laws. They’re an interracial couple, too: Lawrence is white, Garner black. But they’re gay, so Rick Santorum doesn’t want them to get married. He doesn’t even want them to have sex.

I’d ask how such opinions can gain the upper hand in a free society—except that we already know. It’s happened before.

  • Jonathan Zimmerman (, author of “Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth.

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