There is no question in my mind that there is a seamless arc connecting the civil rights fight waged by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s and the one underway by gay men and lesbians. But not everyone agrees. Least of all other blacks and the black church in particular. We saw this conflict play out in Maryland, where a bill to legalize same-sex marriage went down in defeat in March in part due to pressure from the black church.
A new documentary looks at the black-gay civil rights divide by centering on Massachusetts Rep. Byron Rushing (D) during the commonwealth’s push to legalize same-sex marriage. The African American legislator eloquently weaves the two movements together in the 15-minute film. Following a screening of the movie last month, I moderated a panel discussion at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City that looked at the marriage equality push in New York state from a black perspective. The panel was filled with luminaries, including media and fashion mogul Russell Simmons. But the star of the event was a soft-spoken man named David Wilson.
In the film, Wilson tells the heartbreaking story about the death of his then-partner. The trauma of finding him lying in the driveway. The terror of being arrested by the police on suspicion of breaking and entering or assault and battery before neighbors convinced police otherwise. The indignity of being denied information by the hospital because he was a legal stranger to his partner. Only after his partner’s 75-year-old mother told the hospital who Wilson was did they inform him that his partner of 13 years was dead on arrival.
Wilson swore he’d never go through that again. And he would find love again. In 2003, he and Rob Compton became one of the seven same-sex couples to sue for and win the right to marry in the 2003 landmark Goodridge vs. the Department of Health case.
It wasn’t until the panel discussion that the power of Davis’s example was fully displayed. As he said in his moving opening statement, which I run in full below, this gracious, soft-spoken man wanted “to put a black face on the Marriage Equality movement.”
I’m here to put a Black face on the Marriage Equality movement.
I’m also one of the most unlikely people to put a public face on this movement.
My parents were domestics for over thirty years – working for three white families, paid cash, no health insurance, no sick days, no vacation, no social security, and no retirement. They both lived in the shadows of these families and did everything possible to not stand out or be seen. That was the message from my mother to her only child – figure out how to fit in, don’t rock the boat, it’s dangerous for a young black man to speak up especially in a city like Boston during the 50s and 60s.
At the age of 55 my mother was hired by the Christian Science Monitor in the mail room lifting heavy bags of mail and then sorting it. At the age of 60 my dad was hired by an Engineering firm as a maintenance employee. They both worked 10 years with healthcare insurance, sick days, vacation days and actually a pension – $39 a month for Dad and $101 a month for Mom.
My parents were denied the right to full citizenship because of their race and today I face similar inequities because of my race and my sexuality. Their fight is now my fight 50 years later.
I was married to a woman, had three beautiful children and finally came to terms with being gay at the age of 37. My ex-wife and three teen age children supported my coming out process as did my Mother and Father. My mother met with her pastor to ask for his support and to also ask that he stop preaching hatred from his pulpit. My mother and father had been a member of their Black church for over 40 years but the pastor said he could not support her or me. My mother was forced to leave her church because she could not bear the hurtful messages delivered every Sunday. When my mother had a heart attack 15 years later with five subsequent congestive heart failures, she came to my house for her final 11 weeks under hospice care. She asked me to call her home church Pastor to ask him to come and [have] prayer with her. He refused and sent his associate pastor. When my mother passed away, she wanted to be buried from her home church but her pastor agreed to the funeral but refused to allow me to deliver my mother’s eulogy. After an all-out effort by my mother’s flower club, deaconess board and ladies club, he reluctantly agreed that I could deliver the eulogy from the lowest of the three pulpits, which I was willing to do for my mother.
After my mother’s funeral, my dad never went back to his or any church with the exception of the day that he attended my legal wedding to my husband, Rob Compton. Dad was 89 and could not have been more proud of our role as plaintiffs in the Massachusetts marriage law suit which resulted in the right for us to marry.
In summary, I say to you that I feel half-married! Rob and I have the legal rights that marriage affords us only in the State of Massachusetts. We now have five adult children and seven grandchildren that live in five states across the country. When we leave Massachusetts we have no legal right to be there for each other in a crisis. Three of those states actually have constitutional bans against a marriage between two men or two women.
Rob has had complete hip replacement surgery, seven kidney stones, diverticulitis and I just had prostate cancer surgery in January. We live in fear that something will happen and we will be denied access to each other even though we are legally married.
We ask for your support in the passage of the Marriage Equality bill in NY and your continued support for all Gay and Lesbian couples that need and have earned as American citizens the 1100 benefits, both legal and financial, at the Federal level.
In one statement, Wilson spoke about the imperative of rocking the boat despite being raised not to. He spoke about the pain of religious-based bigotry. And he pointed out the absurdity of being legally married in one state and illegal in another. Slowly but surely things are changing. But they’d move a helluva lot faster if more African Americans joined folks such as Wilson, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the Rev. Al Sharpton and others in realizing that the fight for marriage equality is their fight, too.