Published in The Advocate, February 15, 2006.
An open letter to the African-American community on marriage equality for same-sex couples.
In celebrating Black History Month, I am reminded of no greater challenge to the African-American community than the issue of marriage equality.
With the topic still being debated—with African-American ministers leading the campaign against it and, ironically, with many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer African-Americans also not wedded to the idea—I am afraid that the civil rights issues concerning same-sex marriage as it affects all black families, straight and gay alike, may very well become a nonissue.
And if we are looking at how to move forward on the issue of same-sex marriage, let us remember that an African-American woman named Mildred Loving set the precedent for same-sex marriage. Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that antimiscegenation laws are unconstitutional. Her crime was this country’s racial and gender obsession—interracial marriage.
Married to a white man, Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The trial judge stated the following to the guilty couple: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The trial judge suspended their sentences on condition that the Lovings leave Virginia and not return to the state together for 25 years. The Lovings initially agreed and left, but returned soon after and decided to fight their case. On June 12, 1967, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the high court: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival… Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state.”
One of the ways this society has been able to control and regulate human sexuality and race relations is through the institution of marriage. Before the Loving case, there was the case of marriage equality concerning our ancestors residing in the American South. African-American slaves were forbidden to marry until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Prior to that, my ancestors had to “jump over the broom”—an African-American tradition—to seal their nuptials before a crowd of witnesses.
African-Americans have always had a tenuous relationship with the institution of marriage. Therefore, one can argue that the topic of marriage equality in the United States has always been a black issue. So I ask: Why the opposition or indifference to same-sex marriage? Social research shows that African-American same-gender households have everything to gain in the struggle for marriage equality and more to lose when states pass amendments banning marriage equality and other forms of partner recognition.
In November 2005, Equality Maryland and the National Black Justice Coalition published Jumping the Broom: A Black Perspective on Same-Gender Marriage. The publication was produced to initiate dialogue in churches, fraternal organizations, media outlets, and NAACP chapters.
The statistics revealed the following: Forty-five percent of black same-sex couples reported stable relationships of five years or longer. And 20% of black male and 24% of black female government employees who live in same-sex households are denied health care benefits for their partners because domestic-partner benefits are unavailable in their state.
Statistics may be helpful, but what does same-sex marriage look like in real time and in black face? Historically, it is about saving black families, with its focus on spiritual content and not physical composition. Contextually, it’s about raising and protecting our families. It is LGBTQ couples raising their siblings’ or other family members’ children because those family members have died of AIDS or are incarcerated or are too sick.
Multiple family structures presented by same-sex marriages should not be what the African-American community opposes, because multiple family structures are what have saved and are still saving African-American families. Grandmothers or aunts and uncles—straight or gay—raising us in their loving homes have anchored our families through the centuries. And these multiple family structures, which we have had to devise as a model of resistance and liberation, have always, by example, shown the rest of society what really constitutes family.
As for religious objections, even if same-sex marriage becomes a legal option, clergy will decide whom they wish to marry.
Mildred Loving knew the importance of saving families. If you get tied in a knot and start wondering what to do concerning the civil rights of same-sex marriage, remember the “Loving spirit” of Mildred.