History Lesson

My Parents' Interracial Marriage Taught Me How To Fight For My Same-Sex Love

When they got together in 1961, Sue Green's parents had to face down vile racism to be together. Years later, Sue used their example when fighting to be with her same-sex partner.

Photos Courtesy Susan Green

Nineteen-sixty-one. The Beatles were building a following in Liverpool with their upbeat pop music. And as if in counterpoint, the sultry rhythms of Soul Music could be heard streaming from the doors and windows of the clubs along the main street.

The city was a hub for Black American G.I.s who had escaped from bases all across England to enjoy a few hours in a place where they felt welcome, where their color wasn’t a hindrance, where they could enjoy some great music and perhaps fall in love … or at least in lust.

My father Ray was one of those GI’s looking for romance with a local girl, and he likely thought that if he did “get lucky” the only lasting thing would be a pleasant memory. But that night on the platform of Liverpool's Lime Street station he spotted my mother Iris, the woman he would fall in love with and fight to marry.

When he left the base, he was just looking for some fun, and a soft shoulder to snuggle into as they danced. But it wasn’t long before this young man from L.A. realized that he’d found much more. He had found a woman worth fighting for; whether the fight was with public opinion, or the laws, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with this woman. 

Getting married for my mother and father was not as easy as popping the question, getting a ring, and saying their ‘I dos’. They had to overcome many obstacles before beginning a new life together as a young military couple. 

In 1961, my parents faced their first hurdle. My father was Black and my mother was a white single mom from England. Since interracial marriage was still against the law in 16 U.S. states, the Air Force military brass did all they could to persuade my father, to change his mind and get him to stick with his own kind.

His superiors called my parents in to question their motives, calling my mother a “N----- lover” and asking my father why he would want to marry a “whore.”

They hurled these cruel insults at Iris and Ray in an effort to split up the young couple and encouraged the airman to make everyone’s lives easier and leave her behind. But the love my parents had and the connection they felt for each were stronger than the will of those white officers. 

All they wanted was to marry and spend the rest of their lives together. It was as simple and as complicated as that.

My mother and father didn’t care if interracial marriages were banned in nearly one-third of the U.S. states. They weren’t intent on making history and they certainly didn’t want to cause trouble. All they wanted was to marry and spend the rest of their lives together. It was as simple and as complicated as that.

After months of being told no, the officers finally relented and my father was called in and granted permission to marry. My parents gathered family and friends and got to the church as soon as they could to make it official before anyone could change the officers’ minds. The only stipulation from the military was that they could never be stationed at one of the states where anti-miscegenation laws were still on the books. But for my parents, that was a small price to pay for love.

For them it was six years, and three kids later when in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision made interracial marriage legal in every state. 

Nearly 50 years later, I found myself reliving their battle. 

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I met Robin, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with in a city far from Phoenix, a city I had called home for years.

It was at a basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2000 at an event for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA, now The Association of LGBTQ Journalists). Two powerhouse women’s college basketball teams, Tennessee and Rutgers were on the programs; I had no idea, love was going to be the main event.

Our eyes met briefly outside and when I watched her walk up the stairs of Madison Square Garden I felt like I had been hit in the gut. Now I understood what falling in love was.

Any feelings I might have had for anyone in the past paled when compared to the rush of feelings oozing through my body. There was no one else for me after that. For the next 10 years we intermingled our lives, creating our own family. We would have married, but the law said no. 

Like my parents and interracial marriage, it was a patchwork of laws and some states recognized same-sex marriage. But we lived in Arizona where lawmakers had gone so far as to reinforce a marriage ban by declaring that marriage was only to be between a man and a woman. 

But like my father showed me years earlier, if you find the true love of your life that you know you can’t live without, then you do whatever it takes to be together.

I was so overwhelmed not just by the idea of getting married, but also because I finally got to feel what my mom and dad went through the day they stood in a church in Liverpool and consecrated their love

After ten years together, in 2010 Robin agreed to marry me even though it was not legal in our home state. We got on a plane and traveled to Provincetown, Mass., to say our vows. Through tears we signed the license application and we laughed about having a 3-day waiting period. Then we stood on a beach and promised our lives to each other. 

I was so overwhelmed not just by the idea of getting married, but also because I finally got to feel what my mom and dad went through the day they stood in a church in Liverpool and consecrated their love. Their promise to each other outweighed the fact that in some states their love was considered a sin.

Robin and I boarded the plane home from Provincetown, holding hands for the five-hour trip, looking out the window at the lights of Phoenix. We knew that while earlier that day we woke up as a married couple in Massachusetts, we were about to land in a place that not only didn’t recognize our new union, but where politicians were actively fighting against it. 

Back home we put on brave faces. Who cares what the lawmakers say? We’re married! But deep down we knew that the battle was still being fought. We didn’t want a “sort of” marriage. We didn’t want to have to tell people, “Yes, we’re married… in Massachusetts.”

 

Just as my parents told me years earlier, you have to take a deep breath–OK, many deep breaths–and not be afraid to live your life fully, and out loud

We were happy to join the thousands of same-sex couples who were challenging convention and hoping for further changes in the laws just as my parents had done in the early 1960s. I was happy to be patient, because I knew firsthand that time can be a great teacher and bring forgiveness.

Just as my parents told me years earlier, you have to take a deep breath–OK, many deep breaths–and not be afraid to live your life fully, and out loud.

We understood that day when we got off the plane in Phoenix that we were about to do the same. We knew we had to be strong enough for ourselves and others who were fighting the same battle. 

For those first six years of my parents’ marriage they stood fast, challenging the laws and people’s opinion by just being together.

My parents knew that their love was strong enough, pure enough and deep enough to withstand any slights thrown their way. 

They watched the news closely, waiting to see if any more states would change the laws against their marriage, but for years nothing. They surrounded themselves with other couples who were also mixed race, feeling comfort in knowing that they were not alone.

Then June 12th, 1967 arrived with the Supreme Court decision about interracial marriage. My father described to me what it was like when they found out that their marriage was finally legal in all 50 U.S. states.

He said they threw a house party with many of their friends, celebrating the decision legalizing interracial marriage. But they resisted getting their hopes up too high because they were afraid the new laws would be overturned.

In 2015, when Robin and I heard about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage possible and recognized our marriage across the country, we also celebrated – but not too loudly, also understanding the malleable nature of the law and that the opinion of others and even legislation can be fickle.

Together, supported by the strength of love and our commitment, we know that how we make our family together is most important.

Both of my parents have passed on now and I think often about what I learned from their love. 

You have seen what your mother and I have gone through and we would have it no other way, even if we were given the choice.

My father had it right when he said to me, “When you fall in love, Sue, you do anything to be with that person. Some days you might not think you are strong enough to withstand the pressure of the forces that try to tear you apart, but know that you are. You have seen what your mother and I have gone through and we would have it no other way, even if we were given the choice.”

He said that he owed his life to every one of the people who said he shouldn’t marry my mother and shouldn’t have mixed-race kids. Every day that he looked at us confirmed he had made the right decision. 

What the people who challenged his marriage didn’t know was that each one of them made him even more committed to my mother and later his children. He knew they knew nothing of love. And without knowing it, those military leaders showed him that fighting for love is truly a battle worth staging. 

Susan C. Green is co-author with Robin J. Phillips of The Marriage Battle: A Family Tradition, published by Villarosa MediaOrder here