Maya Rupert is federal policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
With depressing regularity, divisive and misleading rhetoric is dredged up whenever same-sex couples’ right to marry is put to a legislative or popular vote — often exacerbating the false myth of a rift between gays and blacks.
The latest battleground for this alleged fight is Maryland, where legislators are expected to vote as early as Thursday on the right to marry. The passage of such a measure may trigger an effort to put the issue on the November ballot.
There is no reason for Maryland to follow in California’s footsteps on this issue — extending to same-sex couples the right to marry, only to strip it away through a referendum such as Proposition 8. We can avoid that fate, and marriage advocates in Maryland have taken important steps to safeguard against such a setback.
The coalition of people working on behalf of this legislation has included African American leadership from the start, resulting in significant support among blacks that has involved testimony in favor of the bill before state Senate and House committees. Such outreach is essential in a state such as Maryland, where the African American population is double the national average and backing from blacks is vital for the bill to succeed in the legislature and to beat back any attempt to nullify that victory.
The Post reported recently that 53 percent of black voters in the state opposed the marriage-equality bill introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Another recent survey, by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Inc., concluded that support for marriage equality among black voters in Maryland has steadily declined over the past three months as the issue has gained prominence. The survey claimed that “opposition to same-sex marriage among African-American voters is what keeps the issue close in the state.”
These numbers mask a much more complex, and hopeful, reality. Considered in historical context, the position of black voters on this issue has more to do with the way it has been discussed than with any entrenched opposition toward marriage equality. Reframing the way we talk about marriage for same-sex couples will reveal allies who these surveys suggest are unreachable.
No conversation about marriage — anyone’s marriage — should happen without considering how African Americans have dealt for years with their own crisis. The decline of marriage among black couples has prompted a barrage of media attention on the high number of single black women, the role of black fathers and the future of black families.
Ralph Richard Banks, the author of “Is Marriage for White People?,” has argued that marriage feels more fragile to many blacks because of a shrinking pool of available black men — due to disparate incarceration rates and the lack of meaningful and equal access to education and employment. So while black couples are not legally precluded from marrying, social and legal inequalities make it just as inaccessible for many.
Further, although the decline of marriage in the black community is rooted in racial and economic inequality, no state or federal policies have been introduced to address the problem. This political silence may well reflect much more about blacks’ historically lukewarm reaction to same-sex marriage than the oft-repeated, and offensive, assumption that black Americans are innately more homophobic than other groups.
Those of us fighting for marriage equality must do more to connect with the diverse and nuanced concerns of those we seek as our allies. We must be allies ourselves.
Advocates for same-sex marriage should keep in mind that equality includes more than just the right to marry. It must mean that all families have equal access not only to marriage but also to social and economic opportunity and support. It must mean that all families have the right to equal respect, recognition and dignity. It must mean a commitment to fight any unfair law or policy that works to harm or delegitimize any family.
Last week a federal appeals panel declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional. This is a start. Perhaps we can likewise dismiss the myth of “warring” gay and black communities, perpetuated by that discriminatory law. Marriage equality has the potential to be an issue that unites blacks and gays, instead of a lightning rod for division. But to get there, we need an understanding of marriage equality that taps into the fundamental values of dignity and fairness that have deep roots in both groups.
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