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A Brief History of Marriage (in)Equality for People with Disabilities

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court passed down a ruling which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Celebrations erupted everywhere, and everyone changed their Facebook profile pictures to rainbows. The decision was heralded as finally bringing full marriage equality to the U.S. Although overjoyed for the LGBT community, many people with disabilities know that it is not full marriage equality until people with disabilities can marry without restrictions or penalties.

It is important to put the current discussion of marriage equality, and especially marriage equality for people with disabilities, in historical context. In the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, population growth, urbanization, and other factors led to increasing social problems in the United States and Europe. Many of the country’s most respected men took Charles Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” and applied it to society. In their minds, all behaviors and characteristics were tied to heredity. They believed that society’s problems were due to bad elements–non-whites, immigrants, “drunkards,” people with disabilities–infecting the gene pool through marriage and procreation. If these “unfit” were kept from repopulating, and the “fit” were encouraged to have bigger families, then the gene pool would be cleansed over generations and society would improve. Thus was born the pseudoscience of eugenics.

According to eugenicists, people with disabilities fed on society’s charity and resources, but did not contribute anything in return. On top of that, they were polluting the gene pool with their “defective” heredity. States passed compulsory sterilization–like Virginia’s law that led to the SCOTUS Buck v. Bell decision–and restrictive marriage laws in an attempt to keep people with disabilities from marrying and passing their “defects” on to offspring.

Helen Keller, arguably the most well known blind woman in history, felt the constraints of being a blind woman during the eugenics movement. Keller briefly encountered the prospect of marriage. In 1916, the 36-year-old Keller met Peter Fagan, her assistant in the absence of Anne Sullivan Macy and her husband, and began a brief, secret affair. Unfortunately for Keller, her relationship with Fagan was exposed when the two attempted to apply for a marriage license. Keller’s mother and Macy both strongly disapproved of the union. Keller was forcibly taken back to her mother’s home in Alabama. In Midstream, Keller concluded that the affair with Fagan was “a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters. I am glad that I have had the experience of being loved and desired. The fault was not in the loving, but in the circumstances.” Keller’s mother and others around her felt strongly that marriage and sexuality for Keller–as a woman with a disability–was out of the question.

Simultaneously, ophthalmologist-turned-eugenicist Lucien Howe (no relation to S. G. Howe) sought to prohibit the marriages of blind people by passing a restrictive marriage law. In 1921, Howe lobbied for the passage of Bill #1597 in the New York State Senate, which would amend the Domestic Relations Act to prohibit marriages of blind people. It read in part:

When a man and woman contemplate marriage, if a visual defect exists in one or both of the contracting parties, or in the family of either, so apparent that any taxpayer fears that the children of such a union are liable to become public charges, for which that taxpayer would probably be assessed, then such taxpayer…may apply to the County Judge for an injunction against such a marriage.

The Judge could block the marriage if he suspected the child born to such a union “might have more or less imperfect vision.” So basically, anyone who did not have a visual acuity of 20/20 could be viewed as having a visual “defect” under this proposal. Thankfully, the measure failed.

Until his death in 1928, Howe kept trying to get his legislation passed. He advocated for a bonding principle: anyone requesting a marriage license should provide in writing an assurance that none of their relatives was blind from birth. If the prospective couple refused, they would have to submit a $1,000 bond against the possibility of their having “defective” offspring. Interestingly, Howe had previously recommended a bond of up to $14,000, which, in today’s currency, would be about $130,000, effectively making the marriage impossible. Again, the measure did not pass. In theory, legislators agreed with him that blindness should be prevented, but few agreed on how exactly to put that theory into practice.

Although Howe’s efforts to legalize the prohibition of marriages between blind people failed, other, similar yet broader laws were successfully passed during the eugenics movement. Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, and Ohio all had laws prohibiting the marriage of “the epileptic and feeble-minded.” Pennsylvania included “the weakminded, insane” in its list of people who could not marry. Other states included people with “hereditary defects” and other disabilities.

Today, many states still restrict the ability of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to marry. People with disabilities also face losing their SSI benefits if they marry.

The idea that people with disabilities should not marry is rooted in history. We need to understand this history in order to better lobby for the equality that we deserve. As a country, let’s not stop fighting until we reach full marriage equality!

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Cover image credit: Dominick Evans, http://www.dominickevans.com/2015/06/some-people-with-disabilities-are-prevented-from-getting-married-and-heres-why/

Much of this post was adapted from my Master’s Thesis, Love is Not Blind: Eugenics, Blindness, and Marriage in the United States, 1840-1940, University of Toledo, 2014.

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Marissa Stalvey

I'm a passionate disability advocate and PR/Social Media professional living in the DC Metro area. Aside from disability advocacy, I love traveling, history, good food, my 3 furry babies, and reading.

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