Gay marriage supporters seized victory after tough start

Black pastors Hickman, Coates helped overcome national skepticism about Maryland's prospects

  • Rev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, appeared in a political ad in support of gay marriage in contrary to many black clergy.
Rev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 10, 2012|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The two Baptist pastors didn't know a soul at Gov. Martin O'Malley's big breakfast for supporters of his same-sex marriage bill back in January.

Neither had ever been in a room with so many openly gay people.

"It was a different moment," said the Rev. Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. He had attended the breakfast in Annapolis with a colleague, the Rev. Delman Coates, who leads a megachurch in Prince George's County.

They listened. Observed. And at the news conference that followed, stood to the side.

They left intrigued by the proposed legislation, but unsure of how much of a role they wanted to play in Maryland's marriage debate.

Ten months later, the two had become the highest-profile pitchmen for Question 6, appearing in nearly identical commercials that played on television for three-quarters of the campaign. In Baltimore — during some stretches — the average person saw the commercials 10 times a week.

Voters' approval of Maryland's same-sex marriage law last week can be traced in part to the decision by Hickman, 41, and Coates, 39, to lend their names, faces and reputations to a campaign on an issue that remains highly controversial in their community.

According to Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the campaign for same-sex marriage, the pastors' comfort in distinguishing between church and civil law was persuasive not only to blacks, but to white voters.

Equally important was the success of Marylanders for Marriage Equality in raising the $6 million needed to keep Hickman and Coates on the air and the rest of the campaign humming.

Before the campaign could raise that money, it had to endure an internal shake-up and win over skeptical donors who saw better-organized efforts in Washington state and Maine.

On Tuesday, Maryland voters from across a broad geographical and political spectrum voted 52 percent to 48 percent to legalize same-sex marriage. The six Maryland jurisdictions that voted in favor of the measure were five majority-white counties and majority-black Baltimore. Two of the counties supported Republican Mitt Romney for president.

"Hickman and Coates, their courage and their voices cannot be underestimated," O'Malley said in an interview after the election. "They were very, very important to changing the dialogue of fear to a much more positive dialogue of hope."

While raising money was a challenge, O'Malley said, "We refused to give in."

"You have to get a lot of no's before you got the yes," he said.

But to the alarm of supporters, those "no's" were still coming strong in August. The campaign didn't have enough money to fund even a few days on television.

"There was never a moment when it was easy," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which put nearly $2 million into the Maryland fight.

National trends, of course, played an important role in the victory. Opinion polls have shown growing support for same-sex marriage, and the backing of President Barack Obama — who announced in May that he had "evolved" on the issue, and later endorsed the Maryland measure specifically — might have led black voters in particular to take another look.

Votes in Maryland, Maine and Washington state last week marked the first time that same-sex marriage had been approved at the ballot box. Voters in Minnesota, meanwhile, rejected a proposed ban on gay marriage there.

Supporters hope the victories will influence the Supreme Court, which is expected to take up a same-sex marriage case this month, and believe they could help sway votes in other Democratic-leaning states such as Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island.

But none of that was in the minds of Hickman or Coates as they wrestled with the idea of supporting same-sex marriage and how vocal they should be. Their journey started in the church.

Coates, the Harvard-educated pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, was growing uncomfortable with how colleagues were talking about homosexuality when same-sex marriage become a hot topic in 2011 because of legislative debate on the issue.

"Listening to the tone and the rhetoric they were using, that rhetoric did not reflect my views," he said. "I did not want my silence to be interpreted by anyone as an endorsement of that position."

He also had a personal connection to the question. Growing up, Coates enjoyed a close bond with a relative who suddenly stopped coming to family events when they both went off to college.

"He disappeared," Coates said.

He eventually learned that the relative was gay and HIV-positive. Nobody in the family wanted to talk about it.

"I wrestled with that code of silence that many families have when somebody is different," he said. "I didn't want the church to be that way."

Hickman, of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, also started thinking about same-sex marriage in 2011, after O'Malley said he would make legalization a priority.

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