Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bringing Up the Rear: African-American Ministers and Marriage Equality in New York

This week New York made a significant step towards being the next state to endorse marriage equality. A bill that gives legal recognition to same sex couples passed by the State Assembly by a wide margin (89-52) and is now headed to the State Senate were its adoption is more doubtful. The measure is supported by Governor David Patterson but recently polling suggests that New Yorkers are still very divided on the issue. Some have suggested that Gov. Patterson’s views are not in step with the majority of the state’s African-American voters and have cited a new poll from Quinnipiac University to demonstrate a race-based divide with regards to marriage equality. The poll highlighted the difference in attitudes between groups of New York voters over marriage equality with African-Americans opposed (57%-35%) and White voters more supportive (47%-45%) . Upon closer examination what the poll actually highlights is the role of religious leaders in promoting and/or reinforcing opposition to extending marriage equality to gays and lesbians. According to the poll voters who attend religious services at least once a week oppose same-sex marriage 66%-26%, while those who attend services less frequently support same-sex marriage 56%- to 36%. Odd, isn’t it that less frequent church attendance generates more tolerance - not less. Hmm. (As Stephen Colbert would say, “Yahweh” or the [nice] way, I guess, I’ll pick Yahweh.......)

So what to make about the role of Black clergy as potential agents of intolerance? Let’s start by defining what the issue is about. Contrary to the assertions of many religious leaders the issue is marriage equality. It’s not about whether the church, Black or White, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon or other approves or sanctions gay and lesbian lifestyles. Gay and lesbian couples are asserting the same right to have their committed relationships recognized by law ~ the definition of marriage - as heterosexual people do.
mar·riage [ márrij ] Definition: 1. legal relationship between spouses: a legally recognized relationship, established by a civil or religious ceremony, between two people who intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners
The belief that the purpose of marriage is to procreate is a socially conventional and religious based definition of the purpose of marriage - which is perfectly appropriate in determining church policy - but not in determining legal policy. It also is not consistent with the reality of how we currently live when many couples marry (for the second or third time) long past their time for procreation and many children have parents who've never married.

It’s important for Black communities to remember that less than 50 years ago, marriages between Blacks and Whites were still illegal in most of the U.S. Some of the reasons given to justify the legal proscription were very similar to the reasons given to justify the present proscription against same sex marriage - ‘it wasn't natural’; ‘God meant people to marry within their race’; ‘it threatened social stability’ and would ‘lead to violence’; it undermined the sanctity of “traditional white marriages”. Lest you think I exaggerate, below is an excerpt from the speech delivered by Georgia Congressman Seaborn Roddenberry, when he introduced a bill in Congress proposing a national ban on interracial marriages:
"No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainious character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. [applause]. Gentleman, I offer this resolution ... that the States of the Union may have an opportunity to ratifty it. ... Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania. ... Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy"
Congressional Record, 62d. Congr., 3d. Sess., December 11, 1912, pp. 502–503.
This sentiment has not entirely disappeared from our culture, but it’s certainly much diminished. Here’s a link to an interesting analysis of relatively recent polling data on U.S. attitudes regarding interracial marriage. It occurred to me while reviewing it, that in some ways it closely tracks national voting patterns for President Obama.

While we're on the subject let’s not forget that less than 200 years ago it was illegal for our ancestors here in the U.S. (in most of the country) to marry at all! Even where Blacks were able to legally marry, that status did not guarantee a Black man the same rights as a White man to protect his wife, children and loved ones from mistreatment or assault - a reality that has profoundly impacted relationships between the sexes to this day. This history makes me suspect of justifications used to deny others the same rights our people fought so hard to acquire. As Dr. King so eloquently stated, “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them". Just substitute the word "gay" or "lesbian" and the principle is the same.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough religious leaders like Dr. King articulating clear moral principles and spiritual guidance based on love, not fear. But then I remembered, the truth is ~ we never did. Brave, courageous religious leaders like Rev. E.D. Nixon, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Minister Malcolm X and Rev. Nat Turner were the exception, not the rule. Throughout our history in the U.S. traditional Black clergy have occupied the caboose on that “long train to freedom”. Most Black southern ministers supported Booker T. Washington in his accommodationist approach to segregation and black-white relations. In 1961, the Progressive Baptist Convention went on record as opposing Dr. King and his strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience as being too confrontational. The Black church was late to support the movement for women’s rights (although Black women comprise a disproportionate number of women living in poverty); was late to recognize the potential and power of Barack Obama’s candidacy (most religious leaders were early Hillary supporters) and because of persistent and pervasive homophobia - they were late to recognize the health threat to poor Black communities posed by HIV/AIDS, with predictably dire results.

Too many Black religious leaders have asserted the right to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians in much the same way prior generations of religious leaders justified segregation and political disenfranchisement, or tolerated persecution and discrimination in the hope of heavenly reward. Many of the early civil rights leaders, defied their local preachers to follow then young upstarts like - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X; last year many congregants ignored their pastors and cast their vote for the young upstart Barack Obama; hopefully many will do the same this year by voting their conscience and values instead of their doctrines. Perhaps their ‘religious leaders’ will choose to follow their example. Let's not forget the essential issue is not sexual orientation - but equal rights under the law......... Which side are you on?
Posted Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 10:33 PM
Deborah Small |

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