Let's Celebrate All Kinds of Love This Valentine's Day

GLADYS BENTLEY
Gladys Bentley

After last June’s historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, “the love that dare not speak its name,” which publicly outed Oscar Wilde at his  “gross indecency” trial in 1895, is finally and forever out of the closet. 

We were told by religious conservatives if the U.S. legalized such an ungodly act as same-sex marriage, it would not only end the institution of marriage but bring about the demise of civilization. Many also said the righteous hand of God would stop same-sex marriages before they could occur. People like Kim Davis took it upon themselves to do "God's work" by engaging in civil disobedience and refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It didn't work.

But even before last year’s ruling, we often publicly revealed our affection for one another. 

For example, during the repressive 1950s McCarthy era, Gladys Bentley (pictured), a talented pianist and blues singer, and one of the most notorious and successful African-American lesbians during the Harlem Renaissance, sang raunchy and salacious lyrics to popular tunes. Bentley not only sang about gay sex but also lived and celebrated her sexual orientation. Known to perform in her infamous white tuxedo and top hat, Bentley played with gender and sex before even the bravest mainstream performers would.

As troubling as her public gayness was at the time, Bentley’s most disturbing behavior was her participation in something else that was very controversial: interracial marriage.  

Had her “woman-friend” been African-American or another woman of color, their coupling would have clearly been subjected to condemnation and jeering, but it would not have conjured up quite the wrath, fear, and disgust that interracial marriage did. And with antimiscegenation laws in force in many states until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967, and with same-sex marriage not granted in all 50 states until 2015, Bentley single-handedly performed a coup d’etat against the institution of marriage and the prohibition of miscegenation — in the early-1930s, before either interracial or same-sex marriage was even close to being legal nationwide, she married her white girlfriend in a wedding ceremony .

Mildred and Richard Loving

Later, the precedent for same-sex marriage was set by an African-American woman named Mildred Loving. Loving and her husband, a white man, were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. But the laws of Virginia couldn't stop their love for each other — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Lovings favor and struck down antimiscegenation laws throughout the country. 

When asked by the prosecuting attorney “What is “the Love that dare not speak its name?” Wilde stated the following: 

"It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo. ... It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. … The world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."

History, however, has shown us that people will fight for love’s integrity, even when it is against popular opinion, violating both state and federal laws, and possibly costing them their lives.

Case in point: the beheading of St. Valentine in Rome in 270 A.D.

When Emperor Claudius II issued an edict abolishing marriage because married men hated to leave their families for battle, Valentine, known then as the “friend to lovers,” secretly joined them in holy matrimony. While awaiting his execution, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and in his farewell message to his lover, he penned “From your Valentine!”

May the loving spirit of Mildred and Oscar, and the just acts of St. Valentine and the Supreme Court, be with us on Valentine's Day.

IRENE MONROE
Rev. Irene Monroe is a writer, speaker, and theologian living in Cambridge, Mass.

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