Mildred Loving, the iconic matriarch of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which ended the criminalization of interracial marriages, issued a statement in 2007 before her death, in which she boldly declared support for the right of gays and lesbians to marry:
My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right…I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights…I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.
Mildred Loving’s words are a wonderful reminder of how far America has come on matters of racial equality, but a subtle warning that the work is still incomplete.
Last week the New York State Assembly approved a bill that would offer marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples. The bill faces one final hurdle: passage in the Republican-led New York State Senate where it is currently one vote shy of being successful. Today is the final day of the legislative session, and so the debate has come down to the bitter end.
Though gay marriage is legal in 5 states and the District of Columbia, New York’s unique position as the de facto cultural and financial capital of the nation, makes the realization of marriage equality here a significant symbol of social progress.
Following the bill’s initial success, unlikely voices in the African-American community weighed into the debate. David Tyree, the former New York Giants player, appeared in a promotional video on behalf of the anti-gay, National Organization for Marriage in which he warns of the potential “consequences” of legalizing same-sex marriage. Tyree went as far as to claim that gay marriage could, in fact, “be the beginning of our country sliding toward…anarchy.”
Michael Strahan, another New York Giant, took the opposite view. The former defensive end and Super Bowl champion was joined by his fiancée Nicole Murphy appearing together on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign’s “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality”. The couple declared: “We believe that everyone should have the right to get married, just as we do.” Other notable African-American New Yorkers to participate in the campaign were Whoopi Goldberg and Russell Simmons, both long-term supporters of equal rights for gay Americans.
This debate is not new within the black community and the conflation of gay rights and civil rights has been vehemently challenged. It is no surprise that the only Democrat in the New York Senate who remains opposed to the legalization of marriage equality is Rev. Ruben Diaz, a Pentecostal minister of Afro-Puerto Rican heritage, who represents a largely black and Hispanic community in the Bronx. Ruben has been a strong voice in the anti-gay marriage debate, and reflects the dichotomy inherent in addressing gay marriage from a religious perspective.What is often lost on those black Americans who oppose gay marriage is a two-fold conundrum; first, the significant decline in marriage rates among heterosexuals in the black community, and secondly, the inherent hypocrisy of denying other minorities equal rights.
David Tyree embarrassingly failed to recognize the parallel between the fight for marriage equality and the struggle for civil rights, when he claimed that it was unfair to change a long-standing institution “because a minority — an influential minority — has an agenda”.
If the U.S. failed to promote and protect minority rights, where would African-Americans be today?
As this debate continued over the Father’s Day weekend, I could not help but notice so many discussions about the continuing decline of the nuclear family and the crisis of fatherhood. President Obama addressed the issue in an op-ed last week in People magazine, and NBA star Dwyane Wade did the same in Newsweek magazine.
TheGrio has focused considerable attention on the fact that fewer black fathers are actively engaged in their children’s lives, causing a destructive cycle which has existed in the African-American community for decades.
Statistical data from a recent Pew Research poll revealed the shocking truth that many of us undoubtedly already knew: that African-American children were twice as likely as whites to not have a father living at home. And blacks are the least likely of all ethnic groups to get married at all.
As the contributing factors of crime, imprisonment, poor education, drugs and increasing numbers of children born out of wedlock have taken their toll, the destructive pattern has continued. It seems curious that African-Americans would actively oppose gay marriage, when the signs of what occurs in a community when families are torn apart, are most evident in our own.
The legal and political challenges in New York will certainly have an impact on the wider American socio-political consciousness. African-Americans will undoubtedly help lead and shape the debate. And perhaps the struggle gays and lesbians currently face in attempting to form strong, safe, committed families will serve a mirror as we rebuild and secure our own.