Commentary: The Evolution of Black America on Gay Marriage

How popular opinion about marriage equality has changed in the African-American community.

Posted: 03/26/2013 01:40 PM EDT
Commentary: The Evolution of Black America on Gay Marriage

Fifteen years ago, I had a conversation that changed my perspective on same-sex marriage when I sat down with my friend and colleague Evan Wolfson, then the director of a group called the Marriage Project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

At a time when President Clinton had recently signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, Evan argued to me it was absolutely essential to fight for the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples. I disagreed and maintained it was not the right battle at that time. The LGBT community should focus on ending discrimination in employment, allowing gays to serve openly in the military, outlawing hate crimes, providing access to health care and other more pressing issues, I argued.

Evan won me over that day with a familiar but compelling analogy. He said we have to shoot for the moon, and even if we fail, we end up in the stars. In other words, by fighting for marriage equality, we would make it easier to achieve anti-discrimination laws, hate crimes laws and lifting the ban on gays in the military. And the push for marriage would also move the boundaries of the debate, he argued, so civil unions would eventually become a default fall-back position for moderates instead of outright opposition to gay relationships.

I agreed with his argument, but I still feared marriage would become the dominant issue in the LGBT movement, and other bread-and-butter issues like employment discrimination, access to health care and resources for HIV/AIDS, which disproportionately affect African-Americans and LGBT people of color, would never be resolved.

Turns out we were both right. Evan was exactly right to push for marriage equality way back in the 1990s when no one thought it was possible and many voices, even in the LGBT community, thought it was a mistake. But I believe I was also right that marriage would consume the LGBT movement, which it did for the next decade and a half.

So this week, as the Supreme Court takes up two gay marriage cases, it seems inevitable that marriage equality will eventually become the law of the land, if not from the court's decisions this year then certainly from the dramatic shift on the issue in popular opinion. But even if same-sex marriage becomes legal in all 50 states, gays and lesbians can still be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation in 29 states, the majority of the country. That issue has not been resolved.

Ten years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, I feared anti-gay conservatives would try to drive a wedge between African-Americans and gays and lesbians by pitting the two groups against each other. So in 2003, I co-founded an organization called the National Black Justice Coalition to fight for marriage equality but also to fight for other important issues that concern LGBT people of color. And while a few outspoken anti-gay voices in the Black religious community hogged up all the media attention at first, I wanted America and Black America to know that African-Americans are not more homophobic than whites and not monolithic in their views.

That was a hard sell for many years, even as we pointed to supportive Black elected officials like Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Gov. David Paterson of New York. But ever since President Obama publicly endorsed marriage equality last year, the African-American community has moved faster and farther than any other group in the country.

An ABC News poll taken after the president's remarks last year showed Black support for same-sex marriage had risen to 59 percent, indicating that African-Americans were actually more supportive of marriage equality than whites were. Meanwhile, everyone from General Colin Powell to Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Floyd Mayweather announced their support for same-sex marriage last year. The NAACP also endorsed marriage equality.

By coming out for marriage equality, they all rejected the silly reductionist argument that tried to minimize the gay community's struggle compared to the Black community's unique struggle. Despite what conservatives wanted America to believe, we're now realizing that Black people aren't selfish about defending basic civil rights, even for other groups. We know it doesn't matter which group was first oppressed, or most oppressed, or whether they are identically oppressed.

What matters is that no group of people should be oppressed.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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