Where Blacks Lead the Fight for Gay Rights

The anti-gay-rights movement has long sought to use the relative religiosity of the black community to marshal its support. Anti-marriage-equality leaders often cite the results of Proposition 8 in California, which was supported by a majority of African American voters in the state, as proof that the black community as a whole is against gay marriage.

In Washington, D.C., the anti-gay-rights movement attempted to put recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states to a citywide referendum (it was rejected by the Board of Elections and Ethics) hoping that the city's mostly black population would come out against it. This dynamic may explain why Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American religious leader, has been put forth as the face of the anti-gay-marriage movement.

There's only one problem: The face of LGBT leadership in D.C. is often black. Nationally, anti-gay-rights activists have had a great deal of success in encouraging black voters to oppose gay rights, partially because LGBT rights are seen -- incorrectly -- as a "white issue." But in Washington, D.C., the diverse composition of the marriage-equality movement means that marriage-equality activists don't have to "reach out" to the black community, because they're already part of it. That doesn't mean marriage-equality activists don't face serious obstacles in garnering support among African Americans, but it makes racial divisions harder to exploit. The lesson is clear -- when the marriage-equality movement is integrated, outreach becomes less of an issue.

"The District being a majority African American city, gays and lesbians have always played a major part [in] the community," says Jeffrey Richardson, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an LGBT-rights group. As a result, Richardson says, a racially divisive strategy "isn't going to work here."

Carlene Cheatham, a local community organizer who has been active in the fight for gay rights since the 1980s, says D.C. is a unique environment for black LGBTs. "D.C. has had a history of having black gay and lesbian organizations. There aren't that many around the country," she says. "More often than not, if you're involved in gay and lesbian affairs, you're in a predominantly white environment."

Cheatham believes that much of the opposition to gay marriage among African Americans stems from the perception that marriage equality is not as urgent as other problems facing the community. "There are other issues that are more important, like the economy, health care and jobs, rather than gay-rights-related stuff. I think that's part of the reason blacks aren't more involved," she says.

Some, particularly in the anti-gay-marriage movement, express puzzlement at the prioritizing of gay rights over issues they see as more important to the black community.

"If [Richardson] were standing next to me trying to catch a cab, neither one of us would get picked up," says the Rev. Patrick Walker, the leader of the local Missionary Baptist Minister's Conference, which is opposed to gay marriage. "I think we have more issues in terms of being African American men ? than the perception of being heterosexual or homosexual."

Nick McCoy, D.C. based marriage-equality activist affiliated with the Young Democrats who testified in front of the D.C. ethics board against the marriage-equality referendum, says he often runs into this perception. When he testified in front of the Concerned Black Clergy in 2004, and again in front of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2005, he says he was asked the same question: "What are you first; are you black or are you gay?"

McCoy says he told both groups the same thing: "I haven't had a choice in the matter. I've been able to be strong enough, and I've made the decision, to live out both of those lives."

Part of the reason some have trouble reconciling black LGBT identity, Richardson says, is a culture of secrecy and invisibility supported by the black church that helps keep people in the closet. "Particularly within the black church, there's an unspoken code; we don't talk about [homosexuality]," Richardson says. "It's like we should be seen and not heard -- you can come to my church, you can be a member, but I only want a part of you; I don't want the whole person." The result of this culture of invisibility is that people opposed to LGBT rights are sometimes unable to recognize those around them who are gay -- even if they're standing right in front of them.

Last year, Cheatham met Walker at an organizational meeting for the Obama campaign. Walker, who refers to Cheatham affectionately as "Ms. Cheatham," says he had no idea she was a lesbian. "I met her and some other people who are in favor of this who are activists, and I didn't know they were homosexuals. I didn't give it any thought, to be honest."

"Some people know this aspect of me; some people know that aspect of me," Cheatham says. "I wasn't surprised that he was surprised. I thought it was cute." Walker also met Richardson at a sit-down with the Gertrude Stein Club several months ago. He didn't know Richardson was gay, either.

While Walker's relationships with LGBT activists are unlikely to change his views on gay marriage, the increased visibility of black LGBTs has helped them draw other allies from the faith community. Dennis Wiley is co-pastor of the Covenant Baptist Church in D.C., along with his wife, Christine. Their church performs same-sex-union ceremonies and will perform same-sex marriages if they become legal. Wiley says that he was deeply affected by his "exposure to persons of a different sexual orientation and realizing that they're human beings like everyone else."

Wiley shocked Walker and the MBPC in May, when he, along with Dr. Alton B. Pollard III, the dean of Howard University's Divinity School, helped found a group of local clergy supportive of marriage equality. Walker was present at the press conference announcing the creation of the group. "When I left that place, there was just heaviness on me," Walker says. "It was saddening and sickening to see."

The diversity of the pro-marriage-equality leadership, represented by figures like Wiley, Richardson, and Cheatham, gay-marriage advocates believe, will prevent the city from degenerating into a conflict along racial lines, despite the strong historical and cultural currents running against them.

"This attempt at division is more likely to be successful if you're talking to someone who has never talked to anyone who is LGBT or never met someone who is LGBT," Richardson says. "But that's not likely here in the District."

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