By Frank Bruni
the new york times
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.
Two weeks ago the Human Rights Campaign inaugurated a new effort to move public opinion nationwideÂ 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 New Jersey.
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 the NAACP.
In its infancy the HRC 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, D-Md., 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 homosexuality.
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 offensive.”
African-Americans were enslaved. And during their brutal struggle for justice, they couldn’t make a secret of what set them apart from others, Henderson said 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 liberty.
Bond doesn’t utter the phrase “civil rights” in his ad. He discusses “what’s right and just,” along withÂ “commitment and stable families.”It pains him, he told me, to think that “black people of all people” might be an obstacle to ending anyÂ 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.
By Frank Bruni