By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
Today heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates, skimpy negligees, and fulsome rose bouquets are Valentine’s Day staples, but they were not part of its origin story.
The tale of St. Valentine is open to several interpretations, none are for the faint at heart. According to one, Valentine was a third century priest in Rome at the time of Emperor Claudius II. When the Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, the story goes, viewed this decree as unjust. He ignored it, instead marrying young lovers in secret. When Claudius discovered the priest’s defiance the Emperor ordered that he be put to death. And we thought election year politics were rough.
Rome was not the only empire to behave like a stereotypical mother-in-law-to-be by undermining marriage to further dubious goals. In the USA marriage bans have been used to promote blatant racism and to preserve whiteness. While New Jersey law has never banned interracial marriage, forty one of our fifty states have banned them. Massachusetts’ interracial marriage ban ended in 1843, Ohio’s ended in 1887, and California’s was repealed in 1948. Up until 1967 marriage between people of different races was a crime in Virginia (whose motto, by the way, is “Virginia is for Lovers”) and fifteen other states, including all of the Southern states. That year the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by a black woman and a white man who faced jail time in Virginia for getting married. The facts were simple; the injustice was obvious. The Court ruled for love, finding all interracial marriage bans to be unconstitutional. That Supreme Court case also wins the prize for having a name that best explains the stakes: Loving v. Virginia.
States across the country have also denied love between people of the same sex. Preserving the institution of marriage for men who marry women, and women who married men, denied gay and lesbian couples and families the ability to fully integrate into society, and to enjoy the benefits and protections marriage provides. After decades of struggle, in 2013 gay and lesbian couples convinced New Jersey courts to recognize their freedom to marry.
Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court channeled Valentine once again, ruling that same-sex couples across the country have the right to marry.
Take that, Claudius.
Far from that emperor’s Rome, Montclair is known for supporting lovers. Over 20 years ago, Interrace Magazine, a publication for-and-about interracial couples and families, conducted a poll asking people to rank which cities were most welcoming for interracial couples and families. Montclair topped the list. According to a 1998 Washington Post article “[i]n open-minded suburbs such as Montclair, outside New York City, mixed-race couples … are so common that they rarely turn heads.” Perhaps you saw that article when you were house hunting? Perhaps it even convinced you to move here.
Montclair, along with our neighbors Maplewood and South Orange, is also known for welcoming gay and lesbian couples and families. When New Jersey courts ruled in favor of freedom to marry, supporters gathered here, in front of the First Congregational Church, to celebrate the decision. At the stroke of midnight on the first day people of the same sex could marry, two Montclair residents tied the knot at First Congregational, making our town the site of one of NJ’s first same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The next time I pass that beautiful stone building at the corner of Fullerton and Plymouth I’ll think of its place in our state’s history.
Step back Virginia, Montclair truly is for lovers.