Gay marriage: Freedom for one, freedom for all

The unwillingness of some black ministers to embrace gay marriage is a troubling coda to the civil rights struggle

July 26, 2011|By Thomas F. Schaller

Two years ago in this space I called for Maryland to join the small group of mostly New England states as one of the national leaders in legalizing same-sex marriage. Maryland legislators came up short in accomplishing that goal this year, but two developments that came in quick succession last month may have turned the tide.

First, President Barack Obama let slip that his views on the subject of same-sex marriage, which he opposes in favor of the virtually meaningless civil union alternative, were "evolving." The following week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gained national attention by signing his state's same-sex marriage bill into law.

To that point Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who during this year's legislative session quietly backed the same-sex marriage legislation, preferred to maneuver behind the scenes. The bill passed the Senate but fell a few votes shy in the House. Mr. O'Malley wasn't an obstacle to the legislation, but neither was he a strong, vocal advocate.

Capitalizing on the political afterglow that other young Catholic governor was enjoying, gay marriage advocates in Maryland swung into action. They pressured Mr. O'Malley to take a clearer, more forceful stand on the issue. On Friday, the Old Line State governor finally crossed a key line in the political sand: He announced he would commit his name and his office's resources to the same-sex marriage cause.

Only a few small hurdles now remain, primary among them the opposition of Republicans and socially conservative Democrats, who have moral objections to gay marriage. Far more disappointing is the resistance of certain black state legislators and religious leaders, led Delegate Emmett C. Burns.

A Baltimore County Democrat and minister, Reverend Burns promises to fight vigorously against legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. And he bristles at the suggestion that the gay rights movement is part of the larger civil rights movement to which he has been committed throughout his adult life.

The objections of Mr. Burns and his supporters are sad but not surprising. In a 2006 book, UMBC colleague and co-author Tyson King-Meadows and I examined the voting patterns of black legislators. On most policies, black legislators vote quite uniformly.

On so-called "body issues" like abortion and gay rights, however, black state caucuses often divide between urban, younger and more secular legislators, who tend to vote liberally, and rural, older and more religious legislators who vote more conservatively. Similar patterns of support for gay marriage prevail within the black community at large, and among white Americans, of course.

But homosexuality makes life doubly difficult for gay minorities or bi-racial gay couples. When black politicians dismiss homosexuals as amoral or ungodly sinners, gay and lesbian minorities feel compelled to keep their behavior and their identities on the "down low." Rather than being a refuge for gay minorities, the black community becomes yet another environment fraught with fear and scorn.

As Delegate Burns proudly acknowledges, gay rights resistance within the black community originates from the church pews. This is particularly and sadly ironic, given that black ministers five decades ago provided the civil rights movement so much of its moral authority. How tragic to watch this same authority deployed today on behalf of depriving others of their right to marry they person they love.

And how hypocritical, too. Given the high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy among heterosexuals — and black heterosexuals in particular — isn't the sermonizing by black clerics misplaced? Once Delegate Burns and his allies have fixed the problems facing heterosexual marriage and parenting in the black community, they can start lecturing everyone else. Ditto for white evangelicals and other religious conservatives.

Martin Luther King Jr. is not around today to provide moral guidance on this issue. But if Martin O'Malley is looking for some, he should heed the words of King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died in 2006. When black leaders chafed at the comparison of the gay rights and civil rights movements, she responded by saying, "Like Martin, I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group and deny it to others."

Well put, Mrs. King.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. Email:

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