Last Friday’s signing of marriage equality legislation in Washington, D.C. puts the role of African Americans in the gay rights movement squarely into focus. With a 54 percent black population, D.C. is the first majority-minority U.S. jurisdiction to offer full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples (assuming Congress doesn’t block the bill under home rule).
The general consensus is that LGBT people of color are plagued by invisibility and straight allies of color have largely not been invited to the table. Especially on the issue of marriage, the movement is severely underrepresented by racial minorities. Since the D.C. marriage victory is the result of hard work by many people of color, there are multiple lessons to be learned on how to move toward fixing this problem.
First, it’s important to be clear about the past. Black voters were a popular scapegoat after Proposition 8 passed in California. Many tried to blame the marriage ban on a surge of African Americans who voted for both Obama and the anti-gay amendment. This argument has been proven false, and it is now quite clear that frequency of religious service attendance and age played significantly larger roles in Prop 8 passing than the role of race. This has not stopped people from commonly asserting that homophobia is endemic to the black community.
In a beautiful Washington Post op-ed, D.C. pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley address this assertion by correcting the myth that anti-gay attitudes are proportionally more prevalent in the black community than they are in any other. That said, the pastors do concede that “homophobia within the black church and the wider community is real. And the factors that have nurtured these beliefs over the years are complex.” They identify these factors as interpreting Biblical text through a cultural and historical lens, the lingering influence of sexual stereotypes instituted during slavery and a preoccupation with racism in the black community, which “has led to a failure to appreciate how racism is inextricably connected to all other forms of oppression.”
The movement needs to listen to and address these concerns head on in order to change hearts and minds. It appears that the District marriage victory is proof of progress. Grassroots groups like D.C. for Marriage and D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality have built a strong foundation that reaches outside the white LGBT sphere to engage straight allies and racially diverse communities. This foundation has paid off with a broad coalition.
Anti-gay activists continue to attack this coalition by citing the fact that the two votes against marriage equality came from black D.C. council members who represent wards with the highest numbers of African American constituents, but the Wileys astutely point out that five black council members also voted for the marriage bill, the District’s black mayor signed the bill, and the District’s black congressional representative has promised to defend the bill on Capitol Hill.
Would marriage in D.C. win if it were put on the ballot? I don’t know, elections don’t seem to be our forte, but I do know that the campaign would benefit greatly from the leg work done in engaging diverse communities and promoting diverse leadership. This type of leg work needs to be replicated all over the nation, so we can build a movement for equality that accurately represents the true demographics of our community.
(Photo by The Afro)