Caught between gay, black worlds

Couples: A new report aims to put a face on a community that has often existed in obscurity.

October 07, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

A framed piece of kente cloth emblazoned with the word PRIDE rests on the living room wall near a photo of the tuxedo-clad couple.

Next to each letter is an affirmation. Beside the P, reads: "The peace of knowing yourself."

For Derrick Smith-Winder and David Winder, who received the artwork as a gift at their commitment ceremony in February, it stands as a declaration of self-confidence in being African-American and gay.

The Winders, who share an apartment in downtown Baltimore, are among the 4,977 black same-sex couples counted by the 2000 census in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. It is the second-largest population of black same-sex couples nationwide, behind New York, according to a study released today by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The report, which includes statistics on income, military service and education, is an analysis of census data gleaned from respondents who identified themselves as an "unmarried partner" in a same-sex household. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's findings included couples where at least one partner is black.

The study, said to be the first of its kind, aims to put a face on a community that has existed in obscurity, and one that its advocates contend faces bias on two fronts: from the white gay community as well as the black community at large.

The census counted nearly 600,000 same-sex couples of all races nationwide. Black gays and lesbians make up about 14 percent of same-sex couples - nearly 85,000 couples - the study reported. Census figures for same-sex unmarried partners are widely considered a measure of the number of gay couples, although many advocacy groups consider those conservative estimates.

Among the findings nationwide:

Black same-sex couples are raising children at almost the same rate as black married couples, with 61 percent of black lesbians raising children and 46 percent of black gay men doing the same.

Black women in same-sex couples are four times as likely to have served in the military as black women in heterosexual couples, in spite of the government's "don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays in the military.

Black same-sex couples are twice as likely to raise children as white gay couples. They earn $20,000 less income than white gay couples and are less likely to own their homes.

The study's release comes a week after the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a measure that would constitutionally ban gay marriage.

"This report clearly shows that denying the protections that come with marriage disproportionately hurts the ability of gay and lesbian African-American couples to save money, provide for their children, buy a house or prepare for retirement," said Scott Foreman, the task force's executive director.

The task force serves as an advocate for gay adoption rights and the legalization of gay marriage, which would ensure gays and lesbians the right to make decisions on a partner's behalf in a medical emergency, collect Social Security death benefits or inherit property if their partners do not have wills.

But minority voices are largely absent from the gay rights movement, said Alexander Robinson, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Los Angeles black gay advocacy group.

"This study is hugely significant," he said. "We are often caught between the gay community and the black community, ignored and discriminated against by some gay institutions, and condemned by too many black religious organizations."

With Maryland's black population at nearly 30 percent, it is not surprising that the Baltimore-Washington area has a large number of black gay couples, advocates said.

But the reasons for particular findings such as income disparity and family structure are harder to explain.

The military has been an attractive option for many minorities seeking economic opportunity, said Mandy Carter, director of Southerners on New Ground, a group founded by black and white lesbians. And the relatively lower income levels of black gay couples may indicate that just one partner works while the other stays home to raise children, said some experts.

Children are often the product of a previous marriage. Nearly half of all black females in same-sex households and 44 percent of black males were previously married.

Smith-Winder, 39, was married for a decade and had three children before he "got tired of living a lie."

"I spent most of my life trying to make everyone else happy," he said. "I ended up lying to a lot of people, including my wife."

But the split was amicable, and his children often spend the weekends with Smith-Winder, who does not work, and Winder, 43, a retired security guard and high school sports coach.

Gay advocates in the Baltimore area said they hope the task force's report helps increase understanding.

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