In a matter of months, same-sex marriage has gone from being the utopian dream of a few wild-eyed gay activists to an imminent reality that has the religious right in a state of apoplexy. Lines are being drawn quickly, with the usual suspects taking their presumed places. On one side, liberals and gay-rights advocates cheer as brash mayors and county commissioners from San Francisco to upstate New York use what powers they have to grant gays and lesbians the license to wed; on the other, social conservatives hail the transformation of the Federal Marriage Amendment from right-wing lost cause to hallmark of President Bush’s re-election agenda. But for both “traditional marriage” and “marriage equality” advocates, the hearts, minds and votes of one group is up for grabs–the African-American community.
At virtually every traditional-marriage rally, African-American religious leaders have played a prominent role. And on the first day of Senate hearings on the Federal Marriage Amendment, the Rev. Richard Richardson of the predominantly black St. Paul AME Church spoke out strongly for its passage. The website of the conservative Alliance for Marriage features pictures of African-American families bathed in the glow of happy man-woman marriage. There’s also a not-so-happy picture of the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the former Congressional delegate for Washington, DC, and one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, who opposes marriage rights for same-sex couples. The site proudly touts a Wirthlin Poll showing that blacks and Hispanics support the Federal Marriage Amendment at higher percentages than does the population as a whole.
The religious right’s technique of allying itself with notable members of the black clergy is not a new strategy. In the early 1990s, when a spate of antigay ballot initiatives showed up in a number of states and cities, an especially destructive scenario played out in Cincinnati. In 1992 the City Council passed a human rights ordinance banning discrimination in housing and employment based on a number of things, including race, gender and sexual orientation. Within a year, a conservative coalition formed to remove only the sexual orientation provision from the law, through the ballot initiative Issue 3. The group, which chose to call itself Equal Rights, Not Special Rights, found a powerful spokesperson in K.Z. Smith, the African-American pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church. “The first thing out of his mouth was ‘they already have all the rights they need, and not only that, they are trying to hijack our civil rights movement,'” said African-American lesbian activist Mandy Carter, who fought Issue 3. The measure passed with more than 60 percent of the vote in a city that was almost 40 percent African-American. After prolonged legal challenges, Issue 3 was narrowly voted into law by the City Council.
The same dynamic that fueled the Cincinnati debacle is now emerging at the federal level and in states like Georgia, where African-American elected officials are trying to balance equality for all with the moral norms expressed by many of their community’s religious leaders. For black social conservatives, the equation is simple but powerful: A radical group of rich white gays are trying to usurp the civil rights movement for their own special agenda at the expense of the African-American community’s traditional God-fearing values.
On March 31 this view held sway in Georgia, when the Democratic-controlled Statehouse passed a measure that would place a same-sex marriage ban on the November ballot. Just a few weeks earlier, a similar measure had been defeated, with nearly all of Georgia’s black House members either voting against it or abstaining. But by the end of March several of the abstainers were facing pressure to vote yes–from African-American clergy. A crucial handful caved in and the measure passed. Representative Ron Sailor, a House member and a minister, was appalled. “This limited the freedom of people,” he said. “That’s unacceptable for a member of the minority caucus to be limiting freedom of another minority.”