Back in 1969, the Four Seasons had a big hit with their recording of Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues.” The lyrics end with these lines:
I love you so, I always will
And though devotion rules my heart I take no bows
But Bill you’re never gonna take those wedding vows
Oh, come on Bill, oh, come on Bill
Come on and marry me, Bill, I got the wedding bell blues
Please marry me Bill, I got the wedding bell blues, wedding bell blues
Marry me Bill, I got the wedding bell blues
That song struck a chord in many because by 1969, the very idea of marriage in America was undergoing radical changes. I am not sure when it all began, but the shift between the classic American family of the 1950s—a working dad, a stay-at-home mom, and dutiful kids who grew up to go on chaste dates, then repeat their parents pattern—and the generation of the 1960s and 1970 would be fundamental.
My guess is that a lot of it started in 1959 with the mass introduction of the oral contraceptive birth control pill. The Pill changed the ways men and women enjoyed their sexual relations, and the fear of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies was substantially reduced. Instances of infidelity may not have increased so much, but specter of out-of-wedlock kids was reduced. Remember, this was the era of “Mad Men,” and women were breaking out of their homebound routines to enter the job market.
Another thing that happened was the emergence of the youth culture by the mid-1960s. Actually, the winter of 1963-64 was when that began to happen with the arrival of The Beatles in the United States and the phenomenal success they made on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and through record sales.
The Beatles didn’t just revolutionize music: They also had a radical impact on the lifestyles and attitudes of teenagers—the Baby Boomers who were between 13 and 18 when they swept the nation. The Liverpool Four inspired long hair in boys and before long would share the swinging London look in fashion for girls (mini skirts, for instance). They were “Mod.”
And as these teens were heading off to college, something else was emerging: the drug culture. With long hair, blue jeans, beards and pot, the people who were reaching the age of marriage were discovering that not only did they have options (the pills and other readily available forms of contraception made that possible) in their private lives that they never had before, they also realized that commitment wasn’t necessarily a great thing. Not when their parents and others around them were heading to divorce courts in record numbers. The shift toward free love, drug and rock music was immortalized in the 1969 Woodstock concert in upstate New York—and the motion picture that recorded it.
Two other major shifts were occurring in the 1960s—one involving African-Americans and the other gays and lesbians. Or rather, homosexuals and lesbians. Nobody called non-straights “gays” until after the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village during the summer of 1969. Those demonstrations, which broke out after police tried to break up a large gathering of homosexuals, got national attention. Although slow to pick up steam, it was the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. The thought that marriage would in time become a part of it was simply not thought of back then, much less part of the dialogue. At least as far as most of us knew.
For African-Americans, the 60s’ brought huge change, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Opportunities that had been forbidden to black people suddenly were options. And, not surprisingly, there would be a romantic component to it all. Attractions between whites and blacks was nothing new, but the law and the rules of society had pretty much made such relationships taboo before the 1960s. I remember riding in a bus with my family in Montreal back in 1967 as a biracial couple walked down the street, hand-in-hand. One fool on that bus pulled open the window and whistled at them and uttered a nasty expletive. My family was horrified, but the bus rode on and the riders greeted the spectacle in silence.
That same summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia, which overturned Virginia’s “anti-miscegenation” law as unconstitutional. Across the South, those vestiges of the Jim Crow era likewise were toppled. Later that same year, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn starred in a hit movie about interracial marriage called “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It won several Oscars, including one for William Rose’s screenplay, but by modern standards, it seems tame, even quaint. At the time, however, it was hot stuff. In parts of the South, movie operators actually cropped out the only screen kiss between Poitier and Katharine Houghton, a fairly chaste one that is seen through a taxi driver’s rear-view mirror.
Here in Louisville, interracial dating and marriages seemed to catch on fairly quickly. In the 1970s, I went out with a couple of black girls. Nobody in my family seemed to pay much attention. (I suspect there would have been more fuss if I had been seriously attracted to a Catholic, but this is not a piece about religious intolerance. That will come another time.) In the mid-1970s, one of my close colleagues at The Courier-Journal, who was black, was married to a white woman. Most of us didn’t think anything of it, but one editor, a man from the deep South, called my friend into his office for a meeting one day. After my buddy emerged, he called out into the newsroom to all who could hear him: “I can’t believe it. He just told me he had a problem with my white wife!” And this was at the “liberal” Courier-Journal!
In the early 1970s, I was assigned to do a feature story on adoptions of biracial children by white couples. It was a sweet article (I think it ran on Valentine’s Day) with lots of cute pictures, but the mail it generated shocked me. (I would grow accustomed to letters, mostly anonymous, or telephone calls from bigots. It came with the territory of being in the newspaper business during changing times, as we found out during the busing crisis of 1975 when 10,000 protesters burned our publisher, Barry Bingham Jr., in effigy and broke out tens of thousands of dollars worth of windows on our building at Sixth and Broadway.)
Stirrings in gay rights emerged most clearly in the early 1980s with the identification of the AIDs virus and the epidemic of disease and death that followed, hitting hardest among gay men. In this same period, some gay people were beginning to emerge from the closet, but the general reaction among the vast majority of Americans ranged from indifferent to intolerant.
In Louisville there was a notable lawsuit brought by a bank employee who claimed to have been fired because he was openly gay. But he failed in court because, at that time, there were no special job protections for gays; the Fairness Ordinance would follow some years later. Then celebrities like Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins and Liberace died from AIDS, and increasingly people were talking about not just the illness but also the fact that there were many people around who were unable to be themselves because of social strictures.
Tolerance, then acceptance of gay marriage has occurred in fairly short order, as difficult as the battle has seemed to many. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, in 1996 and President Bill Clinton signed it. This law, portions of which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional last summer, led the way for states to pass “marriage amendments,” defining legal marriage (which affords benefits and other legal rights) as one between “a man and a woman.”
Kentucky jumped on the bandwagon and passed such an amendment in 2004.
But the tides of change were swift, and gay and lesbian couples were seeking recognition across America. Gradually, like dominos falling, the states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York) legalized marriage rights. Lawsuits were filed and decisions, like the one last Wednesday by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II struck aside certain portions of marriage amendments because they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In his ruling, which you can read on WFPL.org, Judge Heyburn strongly indicated that the entire amendment is unconstitutional, but the lawsuit was restricted in its scope to the recognition of marriages performed in states where gay marriage is legal. A day later, a federal judge in Virginia did the same thing—the first time a gay marriage law in what was the old Confederacy had been toppled.
It was altogether fitting that Judge Heyburn would issue his eloquent opinion on the 205th anniversary of the birth of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
(Image via Shutterstock)