After celebrating Black History Month and Valentine’s Day, I am reminded that there is 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 African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities also not wedded to the idea — I am afraid that the civil rights issues concerning same-sex marriage as they affect all black families, straight and gay alike, may very well become a non-issue.
As we honor the contributions and achievements our ancestors have made toward American democracy, let us not lose sight of the fact that they have taught us we must lift as we climb. They have also taught us that we must always see our work in relationship to one another.
As the beneficiaries of this rich legacy, we must not forget these teachings.
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.
“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.”
Loving gained notoriety when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. Her crime was this country’s racial and gender obsession at the time: interracial marriage.
Married to a white man, Loving and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October of 1958 for violating the state’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924.
The trial judge said 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 the 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. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. 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. These convictions must be reversed.”
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.
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 solemnize 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 U.S. 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.
Statistics from the report include the following: forty-five percent of black same-sex couples reported stable relationships of five years or longer. Even if marriage becomes a legal option, clergy will decide who they wish to marry. And twenty percent of black men and twenty-four percent of black women in same-sex households are denied health care benefits for their partners by government.
Statistics may be helpful, but what does same-sex marriage look like in real time and in black face?
… multiple family structures are what have saved and are still saving African-American families.
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, are incarcerated, or are too sick.
Multiple family structures presented by same-sex marriages should not be opposed by the African-American community; multiple family structures are what have saved and are still saving African-American families. A grandmother or an aunt and uncle — straight or gay — raising us in their loving home 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.
Since the beheading of St. Valentine in Rome in the year 270 A.D., marriage has been controlled by heads of the church and the state, and not by the hearts of lovers. When Emperor Claudius II issued an edict abolishing marriage because married men hated to leave their families for battle, Valentine, known then as the “friend to lovers,” secretly joined them in holy matrimony. While awaiting his execution, legend has it that Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and in his farewell message to his lover, he wrote, “from your Valentine.”
Both Mildred Loving and St. Valentine 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 and the justice acts of St. Valentine.