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Seeing the parallels between gay and interracial relationships

July 12, 2010

NPR has an interesting look at an interracial couple in Minneapolis-Saint Paul that caught my attention for a couple of reasons. I worked in Minnesota for two summers and the wife, Rochelle Wawracz, is a dead ringer for a few people I met there, but I’m also always interested in stories about discrimination.

What’s interesting about this article is that there’s very little mention of any kind of prejudice outside of what the husband and wife feel. That’s not to diminish what they feel — the husband, Varnesh Sritharan, is Sri Lankan, and both he and his wife agree their obviously different roots get them noticed.

(Wawracz) and Sritharan are a striking couple — the contrast between his dark skin and her pale complexion is dramatic. The couple says the difference doesn’t go unnoticed.

“I pick up on little, like, glances that linger a little longer than they should,” Sritharan says. “Go to the grocery store — there’s still a lot of weird looks and things like that. But, I guess ultimately, you just have to learn to roll with it, because you’re not going to escape it.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while that may sound to you like the kind of thing I say. Because while my boyfriend and I have largely similar ancestries (Western European), two men holding hands get noticed faster than lightning, and we draw about as much attention.

Even beyond the eyes of strangers, there are a number of other parallels I noticed between Wawracz and Sritharan’s relationship and Mike and mine:

“I still haven’t brought Varnesh back to my high-school town. It was all white people,” she says. “I think about, you know, people will look at us funny.”

We avoid plenty of locations based on exactly that, though we often have an added dimension of “and people will refuse us service” in our fears. At least I’ve certainly spent plenty of time in Mike’s hometown, which is just around the corner from my alma mater, and he’s been to mine a few times too. Those trips have actually gone fine for the most part, but people in Philadelphia are not all gay-friendly by any stretch of the imagination, and some of them aren’t shy about it.

Sritharan grew up in New Jersey and said he felt pressure to not date outside his race:

“When I went away to college, I think, over and over, they professed their overwhelming preference to have me marry someone who was Sri Lankan.”

Even though some claim to have known I was gay from early on, I faced plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to date girls. (I came out before we turned into men and women.) This included phrases like, “Isn’t she your girlfriend?” and this particular gem, “You should have a girlfriend by now.” Sritharan’s family, like mine, claims not to remember this and says they’re very happy with who he’s now with.

Wawracz also talks in the article about feeling uncomfortable standing out as the only white person in a Hindu temple, which sent me right back to many events where I’ve been grouped in with Mike’s friends’ or bandmates’ girlfriends and wives. I recognize that’s a different kind of discomfort, since there’s no racial element and I actually get along quite well with all of the ladies, but it’s hard to miss I’m the only guy in the group.

Before anyone gets incensed, I certainly see the differences between interracial and gay marriage. Aside from the obvious distinctions, they have different histories and sociological factors at work. (Though I can’t help noting it’s still legal to discriminate against us in many ways in many states.)

But those differences aren’t as great as some would have us believe; numerous scholars and law practitioners have noted the similar treatment of mixed-race couples when interracial marriage was illegal and of same-sex couples now. For all the differences, both kinds of couples draw stares and are sometimes made to feel uncomfortable when they shouldn’t be.

I draw real inspiration from the progress interracial couples have fought for and won in the past few decades, and I’m very impressed with this couple’s willingness to be profiled in the national media. I’ve heard similar stories from friends and family members, but every person who speaks out about their experience adds something. It’s obvious Loving v. Virginia wasn’t the end of the road for them, and same-sex couples are still waiting for our version of that landmark case, but it’s good to know progress can be made.

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