Illinois lawmakers disappointed gay marriage advocates by failing to shepherd the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act to a vote in the state house during the past legislative session. Despite a recent poll from the Pew Research Center indicating 72 percent of Americans believe recognition of same-sex marriage is "inevitable," the legalization of such marriages was stalled by some Illinois black lawmakers, black clergy and Catholics whose steadfast and coordinated resistance to the legislation proved effective.
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However, the question of marriage equality as a civil rights issue continues to be a major sticking point — one that infuriates opponents of marriage equality. Activists against gay marriage have not been assuaged by reports of increased support for same-sex marriage, and they remain relentless in their effort to protect the Defense of Marriage Act and to defeat Illinois gay marriage legislation. Foes of marriage equality who vehemently oppose equating gay marriage with civil rights as well as the LGBT community's demand for equality under the law have made it the central issue, over which the battling factions have dug in their heels.
Make no mistake that the battle line has been drawn over this issue because it represents, for both, a reasoned stratagem that is squarely focused on securing victory.
Put simply, whoever is able to successfully connect their position to the storied civil rights struggle will be the likely victor.
While it appeared, at least to me, a risky strategy for opponents of gay marriage to deny to the LGBT community what a growing number of Americans perceive to be a fundamental right — opening foes of marriage equality to criticism of being exclusionary, biased and morally wrong — it seems to have had little impact.
Indeed the true fault line related to marriage equality is linked to the homophobic indoctrination of blacks. For blacks, faith, politics and fear have a tremendous effect on their collective psyche, shaping perception, and causing them to grapple with the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.
Nevertheless, by packaging the debate as a civil rights issue, LGBT advocates and same-sex marriage opponents are able to sidestep the more important and complex question of what causes the black community's homophobic mindset. The black community's skirting of the issue will not produce an understanding of the sources of the black homophobic mindset. However, understanding why masculinity is so important to blacks — and why challenges to it create divisiveness — is a first and necessary step.
The present-day homophobic viewpoint, while different in a number of ways from the emasculation of black men who were brought to America in chains, is rooted in the degradation of black males.
The degradation that is the source of weakening black masculinity is exercised through societal controls. Joblessness, the prison industrial complex and hopelessness forge the links in a chain of a modern-day, systemic emasculation of black men.
Although factions that oppose gay marriage seem to debate the issue in a manner that appears rational and humane, closer scrutiny exposes a disingenuous strategy.
For example, some black clergy who resist legalization of same-sex marriage are quick to invoke the civil rights argument. On any given Sunday, black clergy proselytize from their pulpits to their congregations about the sacrilegious nature of homosexuality. Some liken attempts by marriage equality advocates to a blasphemous act that threatens black culture.
Deviation from traditional sexual norms is viewed as a direct challenge to maintaining what is left of masculinity in black culture. Already severely weakened on a number of fronts — for instance, the black woman is perceived by much of society as the head of household — the acceptance of homosexuality is seen as another element in the demise of the black family structure.
Longtime gay-marriage opponents, including the Rev. James Meeks, tell churchgoers that same-sex marriage would devastate black families. Meeks' observation is especially persuasive, given the already fragile state of families in the black community.
Anti-gay forces have seen substantial results from utilizing this tactic, and for this reason, they continue to use it. Their efforts have created conflict within the Illinois Black Caucus, one that is usually a very dependable liberal voting block. Mounting pressure from anti-gay forces, spearheaded by black clergy, is thwarting the efforts of the LGBT community to gain the support of black lawmakers in their quest for marriage equality. Some black lawmakers treat marriage equality as if it were the third rail of politics. They are justifiably concerned about the political implications that casting a vote for same-sex marriage might have on their political futures.
The brazen inflexibility of some black clergy highlights what observers might perceive as intra-racial homophobia. The conservative anti-gay vanguard believes that it is their moral obligation to defend traditional marriage. The Rev. Gregory Daniels, who in expressing his contempt for the LGBT community and his opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage, once told the New York Times , "If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them."
The same-sex marriage debate exposes the Black Church's failure to work against endemic taboos and to confront irrational attitudes related to homosexuality. While not entirely unique to black culture, these attitudes contradict Christian teaching. Unfortunately, there is no perceptible sign that the rigidity of the Black Church toward LGBTs and same-sex marriage is abating.
The potential for legislative action on same-sex marriage resulted in a somewhat odd union between an African American Clergy Coalition and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. It is entirely possible that the partnership represented a shrewd ecumenical effort to deliver a knockout punch to the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which seems to have been very effective — and to epitomize the old saying that "desperate times call for desperate measures."
Some black clergy have taken to associating support for the same-sex marriage legislation on civil rights grounds as an affront to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Keith Boykin, an advocate for gay rights who is black, was stunned when civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson rejected comparisons between the civil rights movement and marriage equality. Jackson stated his position, noting "Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution." A disillusioned Boykin failed to consider the historical basis for Jackson's point of view, as well as that of other liberal black leaders. Boykin and other LGBT advocates were slow to recognize that black leaders are more likely to respond in a way that is in keeping with the hardships of their generation. Boykin considered Jackson's dismissal a flagrant example of hypocrisy, comparing it to the denial of matrimonial rights to blacks who wanted to marry whites decades ago.
But a more fitting analogy might have been to remind people of the tremendous influence the philosophy of love, nonviolence and tolerance had on King. In 1959, King visited India and met with Mohandas Gandhi's acolytes, who would publicly support and thereby help legitimize King and the movement. Imagine what would have happened if Gandhi's followers had rejected King, refusing his use of their leader's nonviolent strategy of being "a potent instrument for social and collective transformation." The course of the American civil rights movement would have been much different if followers of Gandhi had rebuffed comparisons of the struggle for equal rights for blacks in America to theirs under British rule.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, an outspoken supporter of marriage equality, has said that black megachurch pastors don't use their power to end poverty and other social ills in the black community. Sharpton pointed out that they instead "break into people's bedrooms and claim that God sent you." Sharpton's scolding was directed at black ministers in California who were instrumental in mobilizing their congregations against the LGBT community.
Although there is nothing new about Sharpton's insinuation, he has ventured further than any nationally recognized black minister by singling out some black homosexual clergy for their hypocrisy saying, "I am tired of seeing ministers who will preach homophobia by day, and then after they're preaching, when the lights are off they go cruising for trade."
Neither faction has dominion over the issue, nor will they help to transform the homophobic mindset of the black community by attempting to define it as a civil rights issue, while ignoring the underlying causes. Until blacks confront homophobic attitudes that are fraught with irrationalities and get on with candid dialogue related to hypocrisy and intolerance, little will change.
Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp, who is on the frontline in the effort to lift the ban against gay marriage, made this succinct assertion: "Now is the time to stand up for equality for all Illinois citizens."
For those who are in agreement with Zopp's rousing declaration, the bitter defeat to marriage equality advocates during the past legislative season illustrates that now is also the time for a frank discussion about the ways that faith, politics and fear affect the mindset of blacks, as it relates to homosexuality.
Anthony Stanford is author of "Homophobia in the Black Church: How Faith, Politics and Fear Divide the Black Community." Stanford will discuss his book at 1 p.m., June 29, in the Carter Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted St.
"Homophobia in the Black Church"
By Anthony Stanford, Praeger, 205 pages, $48