Click the image to read the text found on the "If You Are Fit to Marry" poster
How “fit” is your family? There was a time, within living memory, when “fitness” meant much more than sculpted abs and a strong heart rate. As recently as 70 years ago, it also referred more ominously to hereditary improvement of the “race” through selective breeding. Promotion of fitness in this sense, or “eugenics,” was so widely and casually embraced during the first half of the 20th century that many of its ideas were enshrined in marriage and reproductive law. While today only the most hard-hearted would press for sterilizing the “feeble-minded” or preventing the mentally retarded from marrying, similar arguments are regularly made in favor of banning same-sex marriage.
According to The Science of Eugenics, published by the Eugenics Health Foundation in 1930, the term “unfit” covered enormous ground. It included anyone suffering from “nervous prostration, sick headaches, neurasthenia, hysteria, melancholia, St. Vitus’ dance, epilepsy, syphilis, alcoholism, pauperism, criminality, prostitution and insanity. … nervous disorders, including certain forms of deafness, color blindness and other indications of defectiveness and degeneracy.” Of course, eugenicists also considered “homosexuality” degenerate, an embarrassing blight on the family gene pool, something that “should be inhibited in the interest of civilization and the well-being of future generations,” according to Dr. F.E. Daniel in 1893. By the end of the 1930s, eugenicists had pushed through a web of state laws prohibiting those they viewed as genetically inadequate from marrying. But since homosexual couples couldn’t reproduce, no one went to the trouble of outright prohibiting that group of the “unfit” from marrying each other.
Until now. Some prohibitions on marriage among the “unfit” still linger, unenforced, on the books, but many have been repealed, thanks to the rise of the disability rights movement in the 1970s. For gay people, however, the fun is just beginning: the right-wing rhetoric of “marriage protection” employs the same logic and language used by proponents of eugenics in the early-20th century. And it’s about time they be called on it.
Given the recent string of legal setbacks for same-sex marriage, advocates should reassess their strategies both in- and outside the courtroom. After all, the argument that gay people should be able to marry each other because they are full citizens under the law can be further advanced if we understand what same-sex couples share, legally and culturally, with others who have historically been prohibited from marrying. For that we must look to the unseemly history of genetic engineering in the US, in which it is apparent that denial of equal marriage rights is linked to America’s dark eugenics past.
This desire to filter the breeding pool began in the heart of the industrializing cities at the end of the 19th century. As middle-class white people felt overwhelmed and frightened by the flood of lower-class immigrants pouring into the US, a determined group of social reactionaries — including many respected scientists and a surprising number of leading feminists interested in “family planning” — launched the eugenics movement to purge human “stock” of the “unfit.” To quicken the “survival of the fittest,” crusaders lobbied for legal reforms that would regulate marriage in such a way as to kill off, through attrition, socially and biologically undesirable groups.
Enter gay people, fashionably — and disastrously — on time for once. Progressive scientists no sooner discovered “homosexuality” as a distinct category, than the more eugenically minded among them categorized it as “psychopathic.” And so began the myth of the incomplete homosexual, limp wrist and all, ill-equipped to represent America in any way. As detailed by historian Allan Bérubé, in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women During World War Two (1990), the US Army weeded out gay people based on standards established in 1921 that listed “sexual psychopathy” as one of many “biologically based psychiatric conditions that, through heredity, bad habits, or injury, caused a person to lose the ability to adjust to civilized society.” Military psychiatrists “examined patients’ physiques, analyzed their urine, explored family backgrounds for hereditary evidence or developmental problems, [and] applied a battery of psychological tests.” According to this quack science, homosexuality was inferior and staunchly unpatriotic.
In this environment, gay people couldn’t catch a break. If they didn’t pass for straight, they were liable, in the more extreme instances, to be locked up in institutions and shipped off to be castrated. Sterilization was even considered a benign social-management strategy. As the Human Betterment Foundation put it in 1934, “Sterilization is not a punishment but a protection. It carries no stigma or humiliation. It is a humane measure designed to meet the best interest of all concerned, and for this purpose there is no known measure that can take its place.” There is now. The least conservative opponents of same-sex marriage make allowances for civil unions, which serve the same moral purpose as sterilization did for eugenicists. Civil unions, by creating a separate category for gay people, one that does not sanction their reproduction of children but merely recognizes their rights, have replaced eugenics as a means to keep homosexuals — the “unfit” — away from marriage.