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.”
The political lessons of events like these have not been lost on African-American activists in the LGBT community, who have fired back by forming a new organization, the National Black Justice Coalition. The Justice Coalition is developing its own list of African-American religious leaders who believe in marriage equality, and it boasts a group of supporters that includes Coretta Scott King; the Rev. Al Sharpton; James Forbes of Harlem’s Riverside Church; the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association; Harvard University’s Rev. Peter Gomes; Interdenominational Theological Center faculty member Randall Bailey; and Glide Memorial Church’s Rev. Cecil Williams.
The task facing out-and-proud African-American gay activists working within their community–including churches–is as urgent as it is difficult, since it means forcing African-Americans to finally confront the issue of homophobia, and to explore why this otherwise tolerant community still can’t seem to accept its queer sons and daughters.
Among many African-Americans, the very subject of homosexuality “raises so many troubling questions around ideas of masculinity,” explained Angela Dillard, assistant professor of history and politics at New York University. “For a community that has already suffered various forms of emasculation to have this is–well, it’s simply too troubling. And that along with the strange idea among African-Americans that it’s really a white thing. I think it’s something that says that homosexuality is necessarily alien, and it’s yet another thing white people have poisoned our community with.” The struggle to balance community expectations with sexual desires has fostered the emergence of a subculture in which African-American men live on the “down low,” where straight public life and a private world of gay sex are never supposed to meet. Once a taboo subject even in gay circles, down-low culture has become such a mainstream topic (and such a threat to black women, who are being exposed to HIV through their down-low husbands and boyfriends) that Oprah Winfrey recently devoted a whole episode of her talk show to it.
The Justice Coalition has been trying to change the dynamic by working friendly religious leaders, political operatives and the media to get out the message that neither the African-American community nor the LGBT community is as monolithic as is often supposed–black gay and lesbian families suffer as much from not having legal protections as white gay and lesbian families. In the marriage lawsuit in Massachusetts, as well as similar cases working their way through the courts in New Jersey, Washington and California, gay and lesbian couples of color have been claimants.
To the Justice Coalition’s surprise, the group received unsolicited words of support from Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the NAACP. Although the NAACP is one of many people-of-color groups to oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment, Bond took it one step further, coming out personally in favor of same-sex marriage. Bond said of black ministers who are complaining, “If they have real objections to gay marriage then they ought not to perform them, but they ought not prohibit the state from permitting them from being performed.” He also gives cover to people like New Paltz, New York, mayor Jason West, who touched some nerves among civil rights veterans when he said, “The people who would forbid gays from marrying in this country are those who would have made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus.” Social conservatives and traditional-marriage supporters in the black community jump on such analogies as evidence that uppity gays are attempting to co-opt black history. Bond wasn’t thrilled with the direct comparison either, but he believes they require a more sensitive and nuanced response. “To suggest that Rosa Parks and the couple that are trying to marry in San Francisco are precisely the same is just not true,” he said. “But there are enough similarities for us to be understanding of, and supportive of, any person who is discriminated against for any reason.”
With twenty-six states debating marriage amendments, and the fight over the federal amendment looming, the stakes may be higher than most marriage-equality supporters would like. But the debate has helped force the African-American LGBT community out of the closet, and may help redefine its place within the church. “The black church is the most homophobic and the most homo-tolerant institution in the black community at the same time,” said Keith Boykin, a gay black author and former Clinton White House aide, who helped form the Justice Coalition along with Mandy Carter. “Homophobic because of the official fire- and-brimstone message that comes from the minister quite often, but behind the minister, in the choir…there are plenty of gays and lesbians in the church, and nobody ever tells them to leave.”
Dillard echoed this description. “Yes, you have the choir director, yes people are embracing him,” she explained, “but he’s not being really demonstrative with his lover on a Sunday morning. When all these gay choir directors started dying with AIDS, the church refused to talk about it. So there’s a big question about what was going on around that. How come the church didn’t reach out to its choir director at that moment when it was a matter of life and death?”
Meanwhile, some gay activists emphasize that to win more black support, the larger gay movement needs to broaden its agenda and political strategy. “Has our community done enough in the past to reach out to the people-of-color community and their leadership?” asks National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Matt Foreman. “We definitely have not. When organizations such as ours have taken a position on choice, on affirmative action, we’ve been attacked as being not a true gay rights organization. [But] we understand that unless you’re with other communities on their issues, they are not going to be there for you.” As gay groups such as NGLTF increasingly recognize, one natural occasion for an alliance with progressive black organizations is in opposing “marriage promotion” schemes for low-income and disproportionately minority women, which are, not coincidentally, advanced by the very same defenders of “traditional marriage” driving the campaign against gay marriage.
Boykin isn’t one to let gay groups off the hook, but he said change starts at home: “I’ve been disappointed with the black LGBT community, that we haven’t done more–not only on the marriage issue but on a number of issues, including the HIV/AIDS issue. We’ve gotten resistance from people who are black, gays and lesbians who think we shouldn’t be doing this: ‘This is not our priority, this is a white gay agenda, and once the white gay folk get their marriage rights they won’t care about us.’ That could be true, for all I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right fight.”
Like Carter and Boykin in the past, Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Florida, describes herself as “living at the intersection of both communities.” She has strong words for black ministers offended by the parallels drawn between same-sex marriage rights and the civil rights movement, pointing out that gay icons like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin played an important part in securing rights for all people of color. “I believe there are black ministers who have reflexively joined a right-wing agenda and have become allies with the same folk who have stood in the way of our progress as African-Americans, but the longer the conversation goes on–and the polling bears this out–the more you have a shift in attitude,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the conversations that are being provoked.”