The New York Times
Race, Religion and
By FRANK BRUNI,
nytimes.com, November 1, 2011
Without drawing much attention to it
yet, one of the leading groups promoting same-sex marriage has taken an
interesting tack, one that implicitly acknowledges the complicated relationship
between gay Americans and another minority group not firmly on their side.
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
Two weeks ago the Human Rights
Campaign inaugurated a new effort to move public opinion nationwide by unveiling
a video testimonial, being distributed on the Internet for now, in which Cory
Booker, the mayor of Newark, speaks up for same-sex marriage, not yet legal in
Last week came another testimonial, from the comedian and actress Mo’Nique. And
this week the latest of the videos, which will likely become TV commercials down
the road, is being released. It stars Julian Bond, the former chairman of
In its infancy the H.R.C. effort, called Americans for Marriage Equality, has
showcased three prominent black Americans in a row. That’s no accident.
In some perfect world where human nature is less messy and history less fraught,
any and all people who had ever suffered discrimination would find common cause,
gathering together under one big anti-bigotry banner.
In our world there are divisions and even tensions among minority groups, and
the quest to legalize same-sex marriage — now permitted in six states and
Washington, D.C. — has met particular resistance from African-Americans.
This isn’t a topic that advocates for gay rights or their many black supporters
relish discussing, because it focuses on a wedge where they wish there was a
tighter bond. But polls indicate that support for same-sex marriage lags
among black Americans.
In 2008 Californians passed Proposition 8, which prohibited state recognition of
same-sex marriage, with a 52 percent majority. Voting analyses suggest
that between 58 and 70 percent of black voters backed the prohibition.
Last April, as the successful push for same-sex marriage in New York picked up
speed, a survey of state voters by the Siena College Research Institute found
that 62 percent of white voters and 54 percent of Latino voters favored it.
Only 46 percent of black voters did.
And in Maryland, which is almost certain to debate same-sex marriage next year,
a recent poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies depicted a split among
the state’s residents, with 48 percent in favor and 49 opposed. Among
black Marylanders, though, support fell to 41 percent and opposition rose to 59.
The Maryland legislature already considered a bill to legalize same-sex marriage
early this year. It passed the Senate but faltered in the House of
Delegates, which in the end didn’t vote on it. Advocates said one reason
was an outcry from black pastors and the chilling effect of that in a state
whose percentage of black residents, 29.4, is much higher than the percentage
nationally (12.6) or in New York (15.9), according to the 2010 census.
Gov. Martin O’ Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, has promised to sponsor a new
bill next year. But one of those pastors, Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat
in the House of Delegates, has vowed to fight it once again.
Like Burns, many African-Americans who oppose same-sex marriage do so on
religious grounds. “This is a community composed of many Biblical
literalists,” Bond said in a recent phone interview, adding that they put a
“wrong and wrong-headed” emphasis on certain Biblical references to
But it’s also important to recognize that people lobbying for gay rights have at
times given African-Americans pause by appropriating “civil rights” language and
arguments in too broad a manner.
Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human
Rights, noted the existence of phrases like “gay is the new black” and said that
attempts to equate the persecution of gay and black Americans can be “deeply
African-Americans were enslaved. And during their brutal struggle for
justice, they couldn’t make a secret of what set them apart from others, said
Henderson, who supports same-sex marriage, during a phone interview Friday.
When gay men and lesbians glide over such details, he said, it feels “inherently
disrespectful to the black experience in this country.”
The Americans for Marriage Equality ads don’t feel disrespectful. They
feel very, very smart, the product of a movement becoming ever savvier about
precisely whom it needs to persuade and how best to persuade them.
Booker’s ad doesn’t mention homosexuality. He talks about love and
Bond doesn’t utter the phrase “civil rights” in his ad. He discusses
“what’s right and just,” along with “commitment and stable families.”
It pains him, he told me, to think that “black people of all people” might be an
obstacle to ending any discrimination, including marriage discrimination against
gay men and lesbians.
I have to believe that possibility is less likely than before, precisely because
he and the architects of Americans for Marriage Equality aren’t ignoring it.
This column has been revised to note that Wade Henderson, the
president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, supports