Same-sex marriage support shows diversity in African-American religious community

May 16, 2012

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's faith leader network. 

I commend President Obama for doing the right thing in expressing his support for marriage equality. As a president who has championed the cause of justice and equality for all Americans, his statement sends the right message at the right time. 

While some ponder the political impact of his pronouncement, I applaud him for exhibiting the courage and integrity to clarify his position, despite his current campaign for a second term in office.

As an African-American faith leader who pastors a black church, and who co-chaired DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality, I am heartened that this historic affirmation of same-sex marriage emanated from our nation’s first black president. For far too long, many have assumed that all black people are hopelessly homophobic and that black churches are united in their opposition to marriage equality.  The truth is that neither the black community nor the black church is monolithic.  Like others, we are diverse human beings who hold a rich diversity of ideas, opinions and points of view.

President Obama’s “constantly evolving feelings,” that have culminated in his current position on this subject, reflect a gradual process of discernment that is paradigmatic of what other African Americans are also experiencing.  Because we are all products of a culture that is saturated with anti-gay rhetoric, bigotry, and discrimination, it is not unusual for any of us — whether gay or straight — to struggle with the prospect of disentangling ourselves from the hatred and intolerance that have been instilled within us.

When to that already toxic infusion we add historical layers of biblical fundamentalism, the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes, the emasculation of black men, the devaluation of black women, and the continuing quest of black people for acceptance, civility, and respectability within a racist society, it is absurd to think that African Americans would not struggle to embrace same-sex marriage.  For instance, although my own liberation from homophobia occurred long before I entered the pastoral ministry, it did not occur overnight. As with President Obama, my conversion experience was also a gradual, evolving process in which I eventually became convinced and convicted that injustice, discrimination and oppression of anyone, no matter whom, is simply wrong.

Now that Obama has made his stance on marriage equality clear, we in the African-American community — regardless of our personal opinions — must allow others the necessary time and space to evolve in their own understanding of, and response to, this issue.  According to the Pew Research Center, statistics reveal that an evolution is taking place.  In 2008, for example, only 26 percent of African Americans favored gay marriage whereas 63 percent opposed it. In 2012, however, the number supporting gay marriage has increased to 39 percent whereas the number against it has decreased to 49 percent.

Hence, while opposition to gay marriage continues to run deep among African Americans, and especially among those who belong to a church or some other community of faith, a change is clearly taking place. This evolving reality is one of the reasons that the 2009 fight for marriage equality in the District of Columbia was so successful. Not only was this effort supported by the city’s black mayor, but also by seven out of nine black members of the D.C. City Council.  As I spoke to ministers throughout the city, I also observed that several of my black clergy colleagues were seriously and genuinely struggling with this issue.

As we move toward the 2012 presidential election, we can fully expect some to use President Obama’s support of gay marriage as a wedge issue to divide the African-American community and split the black vote. But this is nothing new. We have seen it all before. Ever since our ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, we have witnessed how the “divide-and-conquer” strategy has been used to diffuse and neutralize the collective strength and power of black people.

Because the issue of marriage equality has moral implications, and because black churches and black religion have traditionally been central phenomena within the African-American experience, one of the ways in which this strategy will be employed is by suggesting that one cannot be both pro-gay and pro-God at the same time. In other words, the argument will be advanced that if one is a person of faith, then that person cannot possibly support gay marriage (and, by inference, President Obama) because to do so would be an affront to God.

Personally, I do not believe this strategy will work this time. We have too many other issues that require serious attention. Also, despite our diversity, we must not allow others to define our differences. Same gender loving persons are members of our families, our neighborhoods, our work places, and our communities of faith. They are an essential part of the fabric of what it means to be human. If we are to live with each other, and in accordance with a God of love, justice, freedom and equality, then we, like our president, must continue to evolve. Only then will we gain a deeper understanding of God and of what God requires of us in a diverse and rapidly changing world.

The Reverend Dennis W. Wiley, Ph.D., is pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. He is a contributor to the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works to eliminate the social, health, and economic disparities faced by gay and transgender people of color. He also serves on the Human Rights Campaign Religion Council.

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