On Nov. 12, 2008, eight days after California voters stripped gay and lesbian couples of their short-lived right to marry, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins debated the campaign on “Anderson Cooper 360”. At the heart of their discussion was whether or not demonstrations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were justified. Savage’s stance was that the Mormon church had politicized itself by getting involved in the campaign and was therefore deserving of any criticism that came its way. But Perkins’ response was, “You could also focus on the African-American churches, where African-Americans -– over 70 percent of them –- voted for the marriage amendment.” Quickly, the conversation turned to the longtime ban on interracial marriage, lifted by a 1967 Supreme Court decision. Perkins called the comparison a “red herring.”
Because marriage-equality supporters have for years compared states’ bans on same-sex marriage to the interracial-marriage ban, a strategy for gay-marriage opponents has been to mobilize African-American communities, where gay marriage is often a divisive subject.
In the fall, this strategy played out in Maryland, where a coalition of groups against same-sex marriage tried to appeal to the black community’s perceived ownership of “civil rights” and encouraged preachers and citizens to urge their state House delegates to vote against a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage. When support for the bill waned, the House recommitted it until 2012.
Advocates and opponents for marriage equality in Maryland have already begun campaigning ahead of next year’s vote in the state Legislature, and surfacing again is the argument that gay and lesbian couples are unfairly co-opting the black Civil Rights movement.
Del. Emmett C. Burns, Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who has been a member of the Maryland House of Delegates since 1995, has long been outspoken against same-sex marriage and has made the point that gay rights are not civil rights.
Burns, who is black and a pastor, last month held a press conference at the church he founded, the Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, to announce his formal opposition to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s decision to support gay-marriage legislation in 2012. According to the Carroll County Times, during the conference, Burns urged attendants to persuade “minority churches” to get involved in the campaign to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.
Last month, Dr. Ruth Jacobs of Rockville, Md., erected the website Folks4md.com, which gathers information from media that argue against legalizing gay marriage. One of the main features on the “Resources” page of the site is a 10-part series of videos produced by Focus on the Family (FoF). Glenn Stanton, director for Family Formation Studies at FoF, counters the interracial-marriage argument in a three-minute video titled: “Is same-sex marraige [sic] like interacial [sic] marriage?”
Is same sex marriage like interracial marriage? … They are nothing alike, and here’s the difference: Racism is about keeping the races apart, and that is always wrong. Segregation was a serious, serious social problem. The fact that marriage exists exclusively between men and women, folks, is not a social problem; it is a deep, deep social good. ... Striking down the bans on interracial marriage is nothing like striking down bans on exclusively heterosexual marriage. And it really is an ugly thing to equate the two. Segregation was run by an ugly, really evil system that kept people apart. What drives exclusively heterosexual marriage is a good thing. And to say that the two things are equal really does pollute the public discourse and really has no place in civil dialogue.
Stanton is white, and his audience, captured on film, appear to be predominantly white, as well.
In the “Take Action” section of the site, a letter-generating program allows users to create an e-mail to send to state lawmakers using arguments such as “Same sex marriage is NOT a civil right. The father of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, ‘A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.’”
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a self-described “Black LGBT civil rights organization,” told The American Independent that the black-centric argument against legalizing gay marriage is no argument at all.
“This conversation is getting old,” she said. “At the end of the day, one part of [same-sex-marriage] opponents’ campaign is a manipulation of words [that] trumps history. … Civil rights – little ‘c,’ little ‘r’ – belongs to everyone in the United States.”
Lettman-Hicks, who lives in Maryland, said the issue of same-sex marriage is about the “preservation of personal privacy” and about “two consenting adults [wanting] to be a family.”
She pointed out that African-American households are overwhelming single-parent run. (Figures from the Census Bureau in 2010 indicate that only 38 percent of African-American families in America consist of two parents.) “You’re going to tell me that two mommies is worse than one?” she said.
Since 2003, the NBJC has attempted to unite the black and LGBT communities, but despite the efforts of gay African-Americans to convince socially-conservative African-Americans that marriage equality is about equality for all Americans, the community is still divided on the issue.
Though the NAACP does not have an official position on whether same-sex marriage should be legal, its leadership is reaching out to the LGBT community. This year’s NAACP convention involved discussion of same-sex marriage, mainly from comedian Wanda Sykes, who has famously said during stand-up routines “I didn’t have to come out black.” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous and Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond both support LGBT rights.
Next month, the NBJC is hosting its second annual OUT on the Hill Black LGBT Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. There, black LGBT leaders will advocate for various federal policies (PDF) that include following through with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Because the summit is about federal policy, marriage equality is not on the list, but other policies -– including the Family and Medical Leave Act and a health-care reform proposal to extend hospital visitation rights to same-sex domestic partners –- unavailable to same-sex couples in most states will be part of the focus.
Like many LGBT-rights advocates, Lettman-Hicks believes that a federal policy legalizing gay marriage is a matter of when rather than if, but, in the meantime, she hopes the battle continues within state legislatures rather than in voter referendums.
“I don’t want my freedom to be someone’s vote,” she said.