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Friday, November 13, 2009

Say it Ain't So: Gay Marriage & Black Folks

Mildred Jeter, 18, married Richard Loving, 24 in Washington, D.C. Mildred's father and one of her brothers were the witnesses at their wedding ceremony. Mildred’s father said, "They picked the name of a minister from a phone book and, immediately after the ceremony, got back in the car, and returned to Central Point, [Virginia].”

The couple had travelled to DC to marry because marriage was illegal in Virginia -- on June 2, 1958 -- If you were a white man in love with a black woman.

Five weeks after their wedding, they were awakened at 2 a.m. by police who caught them “sleeping in their bed.” A crime. In their defense, Mrs. Loving had pointed to the marriage certificate which hung on their bedroom wall. The document was confiscated and became evidence in the charge against them: being married to one another. They were arrested and taken to jail. During their time of confinement, Mildred and Richard were housed on separate floors.

On January 6, 1959, after pleading guilty to the charge against them, they were sentenced to one year in jail. The sentence was suspended for 25 years, trial judge Leon Bazile proclaimed, “On the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years."

Judge Leon Bazil wrote in his opinion that: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

After moving to DC, the Lovings instituted a class action on October 28, 1964, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia requesting that a three-judge court be convened to declare the Virginia antimiscegenation statutes unconstitutional, in part, because they violated the, the 14tH Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause.

The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, and on June 12, 1967, Chief Justice Earl Warren presented the court’s opinion, “These statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

In 1967, the Lovings, and love itself, won the case as the federal government overturned the right of individual states to outlaw interracial marriage. When the Supreme Court ruled on Loving V. Virginia, Barack Obama, the product of an interracial marriage, was already 5 years old. In the November 4, 2008 election, he would win Virginia, the state where the marriage of his own parents was not legal at the time he was born.

I mention the Lovings because the arguments used to reject same-sex marriage rights are similar to the arguments once used to reject different-race marriages: It defies the bible, it’s unnatural, and it’s an affront to marriage itself.

African Americans have a long history of challenging the legal politics of marriage. Under slavery, African Americans were denied the right to marry. Despite this, enslaved African American couples formed powerful unions and performed marriage ceremonies that were bonding and real -- even though they were not legal.

Almost 150 years before gay and lesbian couples rushed to make their commitment bonds legal, when their right to marry was briefly legalized, many newly emancipated African Americans rushed to legalize the marriage bonds formed during the brutal conditions of slavery. It is perhaps tragically ironic that African Americans, who have historically fought so hard for the right to marry the people they love, are being constructed by some, as the group most opposed to gay marriage rights.

A January, 2009, study entitled “California’s Prop. 8: What Happened and What Does the Future Hold” by political scientist Kenneth Sherrill of CUNY-Hunter College and Patrick Egan of NYU, found the black support of Prop 8 was exaggerated by exit polls, immediately after the November 4, 2008 that banned gay marriage.

An Exit Poll by National Exit Polls, which was widely quoted by the media, placed black support for Prop 8 at 70%. The Sherrills-Egan study criticizes the NEP poll for poor design and sampling error, as fewer than 300 African Americans were interviewed, and none in the precincts with the highest percentages of African Americans.

By contrast, the Sherrills-Egan study looked at pre- and post-election polls and conducted a sophisticated analysis of precinct-level voting data from five California counties with the highest African-American populations (Alameda (Oakland), Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco) Based on this, it concludes that the level of African-American support for Proposition 8 was in the range of 57-59 percent. The study concluded that support for Proposition 8 among black voters "Was not significantly different than other groups."

The study found four factors—party identification, ideology, frequency of religious service attendance and age—drove the "yes" vote for Proposition 8. For example, "more than 70 percent of voters who were Republican, identified themselves as conservative, or who attended religious services at least weekly supported Proposition 8." On the other hand, "70 percent or more of voters who were Democrat, identified themselves as liberal, or who rarely attended religious services opposed the measure."

However, much of the damage had been done. Because of the pervasive and faulty media reports that that Blacks supported Prop. 8 at rate of 70%, there is perception among some that African Americans were significantly responsible for passing Prop. 8. A perception that understandably has created tensions between some black and gay communities. The idea is to have a frank conversation. Not to demonize any position. Instead, to listen. To learn. Minds may not get changed about the subject of gay marriage. But my hope is that ears will get a little wider. Hearts will get a little softer. And we’ll all emerge a little more human.

Michael Datcher

Note: I’d like to thank Dr. Dionne Bennett, assistant professor of African American Studies at LMU for her research assistance on the Lovings case.


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