In DC, blacks were crucial to gay marriage debate
Gay and lesbian couples will soon be able to marry in Washington, but the debate over same-sex marriage has sounded different here, with references to interracial marriage and Martin Luther King.
Over the past year, both sides have courted the support of Washington’s black community, a majority of the city’s 600,000 residents and one traditionally perceived as opposed to same-sex marriage.
"In D.C., outreach to African-Americans wasn’t part of the campaign. It was the campaign," said Michael Crawford, the leader of a pro-same-sex union group, D.C. For Marriage.
Crawford, who is black, said other residents weren’t ignored, but his group and others weighed the city’s racial makeup in planning their message. That made the debate here different than in other places that have considered gay marriage - places like California, where about 7 percent of residents are black, or Maine, where 1 percent are. Voters in both states struck down gay marriage laws.
In Washington, gay couples are expected to be able to apply for marriage licenses beginning Wednesday - but opponents are still challenging it in court.
To speak to voters in D.C., supporters drew parallels to Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for equal rights. They said same-sex marriage bans would one day seem as ridiculous as the interracial marriage bans overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967. Opponents, meanwhile, and ran an anti-gay marriage ad on the radio station of Howard University, a historically black college. And both sides worked hard to curry favor with black leaders and churches.
"What’s been different here is how aggressively they’ve come after religious leaders, how aggressively they have talked up the race issue, or I should say the civil rights issue," said Bishop Harry Jackson, a black pastor who has led opposition to the measure.
Getting black voters’ support for gay marriage wasn’t necessarily easy. A widely used exit poll conducted for The Associated Press during the 2008 election found 70 percent of black California voters approved of a measure banning gay marriage, compared with 49 percent of white voters. A poll in Florida, where residents voted on a similar issue that year, had comparable support from black voters, who make up about 16 percent of the state’s population.
Black supporters of gay marriage in Washington disputed those numbers and argued that black voters were unfairly blamed for pushing the California measure to success. Opponents have argued the numbers were true and relevant, suggesting that D.C. voters would certainly reject gay marriage if given the opportunity.
But lawmakers, not voters, legalized gay marriage in Washington, and the measure always had the support of black D.C. Council members. Five black members on the 13-member council ultimately supported it, though the only "no" votes came from two black members in heavily black districts.
Even without a public vote, however, supporters and opponents held rallies and testified before the council. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is bi-racial, signed the bill in a church in December with his parents looking on, saying they married when some places barred interracial marriage.
It wasn’t the only time a church played a central role in discussion of the measure. Jackson, who led opposition to the measure, came to council meetings and court hearings wearing a black suit and clerical collar. His group drew up a list of religious leaders opposing the measure.
Supporters countered with their own list and a group of religious leaders co-chaired by the Rev. Dennis Wiley, co-pastor with his wife of the 500-member Covenant Baptist Church in the city. Wiley said clergy’s support was crucial because congregants often look to the church for guidance when it comes to gay marriage.
"The first question many black people ask is, ’What does the Bible have to say about it?’" Wiley and his wife wrote in an opinion published by The Washington Post in December.
For now, the debate has quieted, though opponents are still pushing for the issue to go before voters. If it does, the same appeals to black residents will likely begin again.