Moving Beyond Race on the Gay Rights Debate

Supporters of marriage equality were crushed last week when a marriage-equality bill in the New York Senate was defeated 24 to 38, despite high hopes that a few Republicans would cross the aisle and the bill, which had the support of New York's African American governor David Paterson, would pass.

The debate itself was curiously lopsided. Only one senator, Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx, took the floor to argue against the bill. By contrast, those who supported the bill made one speech after another pleading with their colleagues to cast a vote for marriage equality -- and many of those who spoke were black.

Brooklyn Sen. Eric Adams, referring to openly gay Sen. Tom Duane of Manhattan (the bill's chief sponsor), likened the battle for marriage equality to the fight to end prohibitions against interracial marriage. "The same statements that are being made about Tom Duane falling in love with someone, and deciding he wanted to live in a relationship with that person, that's the same comment my grandmother in Alabama received when she wanted to marry my grandfather," Adams said. Queens Sen. Malcolm Smith compared Duane to Rosa Parks. Harlem Sen. Bill Perkins declared, "I can see Dr. Martin Luther King smiling down on us today, recognizing that his sacrifice was not in vain."

"My eldest brother was gay," Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson of Westchester said. "Publicly, that's the first time that I've said that. … For a long time it was not something my parents could admit, or something they could talk about." In an emotional speech, Hassell-Thompson recounted how her brother was so alienated from their family growing up because of his sexuality that he left the country. She described the years she spent tracking him down and convincing him to return home and how his partner was denied the benefits due to a spouse when her brother died. Defending her support for the bill, Hassell-Thompson said, "This bill is not about encouraging people, enticing people, but rather giving them the right to make the choice for themselves."

In the aftermath of California's Proposition 8, a flawed CNN poll lead to the widespread conclusion among media elites and activists on both sides of the fight for LGBT rights that the black community is adamantly and uniformly homophobic. The powerful debate that took place on the floor of the New York Senate last week, in which black legislators represented both marriage equality's most ardent supporters and most bitter opponents, mirrored the deliberations of the Washington, D.C., City Council over similar legislation. (In D.C., a marriage-equality bill has passed an initial vote.) These battles, in which black politicians are often leading both the advocates and the opposition, reveal a far more complex portrait of the black community than polls showing most African-Americans opposed to marriage equality imply.

Contrary to the stereotype established by California, in mostly black Washington, D.C., marriage-equality efforts were boosted by an integrated base of pro-marriage-equality activists. In New York, the defeat of the marriage-equality bill was driven mostly by white Republicans and Democratic defectors -- only two black Democrats crossed the aisle to vote against it.

The emergence of openly gay black political figures may help shift perceptions of LGBT rights issues in the black community. Charles Pugh was elected president of Detroit's City Council, with the support of local black religious leaders, including the AME Ministerial Alliance and the Council of Baptist Pastors. The Rev. Lonnie Peek, a spokesperson for the Council of Baptist Ministers, told The Detroit News that Pugh was "just the right person to bring about change." In this case, that means helping the city recover from the recession, avoid fiscal insolvency, tackle a growing AIDS epidemic, and restore integrity after the conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for obstruction of justice and City Council Member Monica Conyers on bribery charges.

In Georgia, Simone Bell, a former LGBT-rights activist who worked for Lambda Legal, was elected to the state Assembly. "Picking out black folks as particularly more homophobic than everyone is definitely a strategy of divide and conquer," Bell says. "I think it's been very effective in the past. … If people really knew that there were gay people in their families, sitting next to them in their churches, they'd have a different perspective." Bell describes her district as "diverse" and "progressive."

The future of marriage equality in Washington, D.C., seems bright, with only two holdouts on the 13-member body, a mayor willing to sign the bill, and a Democratic Congress unlikely to intervene. The bill will need to pass a second vote before it is sent to Mayor Adrian Fenty to be signed. The bill will become law if Congress does not intervene within 30 days. The future of a marriage-equality initiative in New Jersey seems less certain, with the bill making it out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee by a single vote after eight hours of debate on Monday. Despite their defeat in the New York Senate last week, marriage-equality activists in the state have said the fight isn't over.

"It's not if marriage fairness becomes the law; it's when," says Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Still, there's unlikely to be a rematch soon. The political climate for Republicans in the state, where a special election in the 23rd Congressional District became the site of a national conservative uprising within the party, will make it difficult for marriage equality supporters to make any headway before 2010. "After the November elections, Republicans became very fearful of reprisal from the conservative party, and I believe that's what made them pull back their support," said Sen. Malcolm Smith, who said he'd support bringing back the bill as soon as it's likely to pass.

Perry describes the vote as a kind of strategic victory. Referring to Sen. Hassell-Thompson's speech, Perry says that "the floor debate moved the political center of gravity on this issue towards its ultimate destination, which is recognition of [same-sex marriage]."

Pointing out that having a family member or close friend who is gay or lesbian tends to move individual opinion towards acceptance of marriage equality, Perry says "What Ruth Hassell-Thompson is saying is they are our family too … That's what moves hearts and minds."

The fight over marriage equality in the United States will not be over anytime soon. In the meantime, the central role the black community has played on both sides of the fight should put to rest the notion that black folks are uniformly opposed to marriage equality.

"I came out when I was 13 years old, and I've had the love of my family and our community," Simone Bell says. "I'm a member of a traditionally black church."

"Black folks are not monolithic," she adds.

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