Let’s face it: Marriage for gay and lesbian couples is often perceived as a White issue. Yet, there are thousands of African Americans – our brothers and sisters, cousins, neighbors, and co-workers – who are gay, in committed relationships, and want to marry. My own cousin had to go to Canada to marry the man he loved. So it’s probably time the country started talking about the issue in more diverse terms- and time the African-American community started, well, talking about it.
And there’s no better place to begin this work than in Maryland, where a quarter of voters are Black. Marylanders are heading to the polls in November to uphold or undo the same-sex marriage law signed earlier this year by Governor Martin O’Malley. Same-sex marriage supporters, who believe in treating people fairly and equally under the law, have a 14-point lead – unheard of in the marriage battles. Most telling, African Americans in the state are now evenly divided. A year ago a majority was opposed.
The Free State’s surge of momentum is due to the right people standing up and saying the right things. President Obama spoke out on marriage equality, followed by the NAACP. They yanked marriage for Black gay and lesbian couples out of the closet.
African Americans are now sitting around the dinner table talking about it and realizing at the end of the day it's about treating people fairly and making families stronger. No longer do ignorance and prejudice dominate the debate.
Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Maryland’s Prince George’s County is a strong local voice who is always reminding people, especially his fellow ministers, that religious freedom is protected. Translation: no gay people will be walking down the aisle in a church unless that church agrees with it. Coates even saw an uptick in attendance to his 8,000-member mostly Black church, after he publically backed the bill passed by the state legislature.
Of four states with marriage equality on the ballot this fall, no win would be as sweet as Maryland's. It would be the first state below the Mason-Dixon line where marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples is legal. No more fingers can be pointed at African Americans for standing in the way of equality (as they wrongly were, after Proposition 8’s win in California). And a victory would deal a serious blow to the National Organization for Marriage, whose admitted strategy is to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.” NOM needs to stop using Black people for their anti-gay crusade.
This is a pivotal time. In just the last two years, national polls show a majority of Americans support marriage for gays and lesbians. Part of this forward movement comes from the African-American community, half of which supports the issue. Right after President Obama’s May endorsement of marriage equality, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that number to be 59 percent. Even Republicans are getting in the act. Were it not for GOP lawmakers in New Hampshire and Maryland earlier this year and New York last, marriage equality would not be legal in those states.
All of this is to say that I think the message of my late neighbor and friend, Coretta Scott King, is sinking in – in all communities. "Homophobia,” she said, “is like racism and anti-Semitism… in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood."
Maryland represents the first state in which marriage equality supporters are focusing, in a serious way, on African Americans.
Let’s hope it’s a win for everyone – African Americans and marriage.
Julian Bond is chairman emeritus of the NAACP, which is based in Baltimore, MD.