By: Eisa Ulen | Posted: October 30, 2009 at 3:21 PM
Gay marriage is a civil rights issue, and that means it’s a black issue, too.
This week the voters in the state of Maine will go to the polls to decide on a gay marriage referendum that is widely considered a test case for the rest of the nation. This vote is so important that Californians who successfully organized in support of Proposition 8, and thus outlawed gay marriage there, have moved wast. Groups dedicated to the defeat of gay marriage have set up camp in Maine to deny consenting adults the right to legally wed.
This is a national scandal, but it moves the issue to the forefront again and gives the African-American community a chance to reaffirm its support for equal rights by supporting gay marriage. Black communities have a long, sad history of homophobia which has led many black people to oppose same-sex marriage, sometimes on religious or moral grounds. But after having served as the moral conscience of the nation during the long struggle for justice and equal rights in the last century, black Americans cannot be absent from, or take the wrong side in, this latest struggle for basic human rights.
This summer, the national office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called to task one of its own, Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the organization’s Los Angeles chapter, for opposing California’s Proposition 8, which constitutionally established that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) Lee’s support of love and marriage should have been applauded by the venerable civil rights organization. SCLC’s unwillingness to surge forward in support of gay marriage was backward. Instead, the SCLC chose to make its stand on the wrong side of this debate and on the wrong side of history.
The danger here is that old-school organizations like SCLC risk extinction if they continue to embrace these regressive policies. Standing in the way of gay marriage today is as vicious and ugly as George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door in 1963. Maybe even more so.
In her powerful discourse on the black female experience, When and Where I Enter, writer Paula Giddings documents the legions of newly freed couples who, during Reconstruction, circled the Freedmen’s Bureaus in long lines to obtain a certificate of marriage from the state. What a wonderful way to celebrate Emancipation?
I am certain great scholarship equal to Giddings’ important work will document the determined, similar efforts of gay and lesbian couples to legally wed.
When my friend, a beautiful brother, came out of the closet to me several years ago, he said he thought he would still marry a woman and father children one day. “So, you’re bisexual then?” I asked. “No,” he answered. He said he was just “doing what he was doing” while he was young and single. It took years for him to be able to exclusively date men, come out fully, self-identify as a gay man, and reject the false image of hetero-normative marriage that for so long had compelled him to deny his basic self and, foolishly, think he would be able to live as a straight man. Before our conversation, he had been in a few relationships with women that had lasted for years. Though he was finally able to name and claim his sexual orientation, think of all that time everyone lost because he was silenced into the closet by too many of us in the black community.
At the start of the 20th century, writer Nella Larsen began to hint at the psychological damage done by “passing for straight” in her novels Quicksand and Passing. Now, at the start of the 21st century, we need to probe deeper, into our own souls, into our own communities, into our own truths.
The most issue isn’t whether people should have to right to experience and express homosexual love; but rather whether they deserve to be victims of violent hate as a result the answer is no. What people deserve, whoever they are, is equal protection and privacy. They deserve that simply because they exist.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning and lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.