I am still disturbed by those African-Americans who choose not to support marriage equality efforts for members of the gay and lesbian community throughout America. It remains especially baffling that so many African-Americans in California could proudly claim their ability to vote for President Barack Obama as a civil rights victory while voting on the same ballot to deny civil rights to members of the gay community.
It appears that those blacks seemingly view civil rights as solely synonymous with the 1960’s movement to improve the Black American experience. However, civil rights in this country are at least as old as the Declaration of Independence, well before blacks had any significant rights or legal protections in America. In other words, civil rights existed before oppressed blacks received them, and should exist for others now after blacks have largely received the same rights afforded whites.
Marriage is a civil right, conferred by the state. At least given one’s verifiable status as a state resident and citizen – that right should be conferred equally to all within every state’s borders. More and more, state supreme courts and legislative bodies – conservative, moderate and liberal – have recognized the basic legality of that fact. The only roadblocks to such civil equality that remain have been voters’ own interpretations of what they individually consider marriage to be.
Many of those blacks who have chosen to deny a state-conferred right to a marginalized group have argued that their faith and religious beliefs form their opinions thusly. However, one would think that blacks, of all people, would recall that the KKK used Christian-based arguments to sustain their Jim Crow control over blacks for centuries through intimidation, fear, and other tactics. One would think that blacks, of all people, would recall that some White southerners used Christianity to suppress blacks’ efforts toward equal treatment as they enslaved blacks for centuries - either by way of the institution of slavery or the institution of second-class citizenship. One would think that blacks, of all people, would recall that in some states since the late 1600s until 1967, blacks were not given the freedom to marry whomever they pleased given rampant miscegenation laws that did not allow ‘race mixing.’ Each of these historic recollections are examples of James Madison’s tyranny of the majority and are evidence of the use of religion against black people in their pursuit of economic justice, legal civil protections, and marriage equality.
In each case blacks often argued their pursuit of equal legal protections were not only civil rights, but human rights. Do you remember reading King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail? Therein, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas and others to persuade white southern ministers who were reluctant to challenge unjust laws against segregation. King argued that unjust laws were no laws at all and cannot be justified. Moreover, he suggested that all persons, but especially Christians, have a duty to challenge the unequal treatment of human beings.
As a minister, King invoked preferred tenants of the Christian faith to make his arguments. However, I’m conscious enough to realize that I am also guilty of picking and choosing which Bible verses speak most readily to my point of view. However, that’s the point. No matter our opinions on contentious issues like abortion, the death penalty and marriage equality, we all can find Biblical references to support one’s argument. Take women’s rights, for example. In the first book of Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggests that women should remain silent in church. Yet, in the book of Romans, Paul's view is that women could and should be church leaders.
As a civil right, marriage equality should not be about religion, but I had to address religion because I know that, for many, it is the reason for persons’ opposition to marriage equality.
Hence, there are differing views in the Bible with respect to major issues based on individual interpretation. The same is true for marriage equality.
Regardless of how Christianity has been used to further the social agendas of varying groups historically, I understand and respect the merits of both sides of the contemporary marriage equality debate. For example, recently, scholars and media pundits have increasingly suggested why “gay rights,” should be viewed as a civil rights issue. However, others share a different view.
Recent evidence of the competing views is noted within the membership of the NAACP. Leaders such as Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King have noted that support for gay rights is in line with the organization’s mission. Detractors, such as civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, find that gays are rightly discriminated against “because of their behavior.” Thus, proponents of “gay rights” have long framed the issue of marriage equality as a human, rights-based issue with ties to the civil rights movement. However, others view their concerns as distinctly different from the content of rights, human or civil.
The problem with detractors’ arguments concerning marriage equality is that their arguments keep shifting. Many opponents of marriage equality have argued that ‘activist judges’ should not legislate social changes from courts. Some have suggested that is what occurred originally Massachusetts, later in California and Connecticut, and most recently, in Iowa when the Supreme Court ruled state-sponsored discrimination against gays in marriage equality as unconstitutional.
Those opponents argued to leave the decision to the people or their elected representatives. Yet, in New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia where state and local legislatures have voted in favor of marriage equality or are in the process of doing so, those detractors now alter their tactics from claims of judicial activism to one of moral reasoning.
In either event, however, the spirit of the law remains the same – the denial of rights to a protected class of people is illegal. Separate civil unions will not work. Civil unions still deny gays more than one thousand federal benefits and responsibilities received by married heterosexual couples. More importantly, it establishes a separate institution that is inherently unequal. Brown v. Board of Education, whose 55th anniversary we celebrate this week, already struck those structures down as illegal.
I prefer the term ‘marriage equality’ rather than ‘gay rights’ or ‘gay marriage’ on the basis that the infusion of the context ‘gay’ implies the establishment of a separate institution. When, in fact, the rights gays seek are civil rights that do not and should not require the establishment of separate institutions, rather, the legal inclusion of gays within pre-existing constitutionally-based structures of American culture.
I realize that there are differing opinions in the marriage equality civil rights debate. As President Obama recently implied in his controversial Notre Dame commencement address, we should be able to have differing views on major issues and not succumb to degradation. I can understand and respect one who shares a different view on marriage equality. I would hope that in America, where we have the freedom to speak freely, that my views on marriage equality can be equally respected.
Marriage is a civil right. We know that because no marriage is considered legitimate unless it is validated by the state. As long as marriage licenses are printed using state, tax payer funded dollars, and are validated by state employees, every adult should have the right to marry whatever human being they please. Moreover, African-Americans, more than any other group, have a historical duty to support the cause of civil rights of others. Such support would not only be fair, but based in Jesus’ instruction to love everybody. It’s also quid pro quo.
Notable black ‘supporters’ of the gay community also fiercely supported blacks’ struggle for equality – Bayard Rustin, Zora Neale Hurston, Bruce Nugent, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Wallace Thurman, Angela Davis, Langston Hughes, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Samuel Delaney, Angelina Grimke, Countee Cullen, Jewelle Gomez, Huey P. Newton and others.
Do we not view these scholars and leaders as equal?