Ever since Prop 8 passed and initial (but erroneous) exit polls pointed to churchgoing black and African-American voters as the reason we lost same-sex marriage in California, there's been ongoing debate on how to deal with the support or lack thereof of racial minorities for marriage equality. Some marriage equality activists and organizations have come to realize that they went about approaching communities of color for support all wrong, or didn't think to approach them at all. Some still feel like cultural conservatism is to blame. Others feel the conversation is a little ridiculous, given how often it ignores the fact that communities of color have queer members, too.
Activists in Maryland have taken the simple position that in order for a gay marriage bill to finally pass in their state, they need to enlist the support of black and African-American leaders, particularly religious ones. A recent poll found that while Maryland voters in general were evenly divided on the issue of marriage equality, the black vote had 59% strongly against it. Maryland's population is 29% black or African-American, roughly twice as high as the national average. The last time a bill for gay marriage came up for a vote, it passed Maryland's senate but was withdrawn from the House when it became clear it wouldn't have enough votes to pass. For their newest campaign, they're focusing on an approach based in coalition -- their campaign is based on the fact that as members of marginalized communities, queer people and black people have some common experiences and goals.
The last-minute defection of black lawmakers was unfortunate in that it revealed a persistent if seldom-discussed lack of common cause between the African-American and gay communities. Although both groups historically have been victims of bigotry and discrimination, many blacks resent comparisons between the civil rights movement and efforts to achieve equality for gays and lesbians... They aim to prick the conscience of African-American church leaders, who are well aware of how the Bible was once used to justify slavery and segregation, by framing the issue as a matter of promoting social justice and strengthening families rather than by overt references to the civil rights movement.
So far the campaign has featured a series of video testimonials called Americans for Marriage Equality put together by the HRC. The first three videos of the series have featured former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Mo'Nique. Bond's 30-second spot is below:
Bond's statement is pretty unequivocal -- "Gay and lesbian couples have the same values as everyone else." The spot is clearly a response to the sort of "family values" and faith-based rhetoric that opposes same-sex marriage, which isn't necessarily new, but the hope is that it will have a new gravity coming from a speaker with years of experience in the NAACP and as a Georgia state representative. In an interview with Frank Bruni of the New York Times, Bond said that "the African-American community is “composed of many Biblical literalists” who “put a wrong and wrong-headed emphasis on certain Biblical references to homosexuality.”
But his spot doesn't mention the Bible, or even mention homosexuality. Instead, its language is a call to both the basic principles of the civil rights movement and the fundamental values of the Christian faith -- it uses the words right, just, love, commitment, stable families. It calls on "the majority of Americans." This is "framing the issue as a matter of promoting social justice and strengthening families" -- and targeting that message at the American demographic who knows what social justice really means, and who has an investment in strengthening families after hundreds of years of having their families systematically attacked and dismantled. Association between the current struggle for gay rights and the civil rights movement are very risky; understandably, anyone trying to draw a comparison to the magnitude of your own painful struggle can be off-putting. But the entire point of this campaign is that coming from Julian Bond, it's not a comparison coming from outside; it's someone who knows.
It's too soon to tell if this campaign will make a difference for the 59% of black and African-American voters who currently 'strongly oppose' gay marriage. It's hard to tell if that's even a decisive factor. But as we fall down and pick ourselves up as part of the fight for equality, one lesson we are learning is that the support of the communities around us is essential; that it isn't just what the lawmakers think of us, but what our neighbors, friends, families and fellow citizens think of us also. To know us is to care about us, at least a little, and maybe even to understand our unique struggle. We need the support of every leader we can get, and at the very least in this, maybe these videos can represent some kind of change.