Hostility toward marriage equality is certainly not exclusive to one political party, although unceremonious bigotry against the bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender (BGLT) community is most often found with social conservatives in the Republican party. While the South Bus has encountered fierce opposition against marriage equality from these Republican senators and assemblypersons on The Right to Marry Campaign (as well as relative support), the last couple of days we have met with strident homophobia from some Democrats in racially diverse districts, which is usually fueled by fundamentalist religious influence. The link between the conservative religious influence of many people of color and their opposition to BGLT civil rights has been well-documented, and persists in spite of stalwart advocates like the late Coretta Scott King, Senator John Lewis, and the NAACP. And it is important to mention that hostility toward marriage equality is not exclusive to any one race, socio-economic status, and creed. However, what is still disturbing is the instance of the lack of leadership on the part of the representatives of these communities, especially concerning this issue of marriage equality. That Democratic leaders in communities that have known and still know discrimination and prejudice do not take a stand for marriage equality is baffling, hypocritical, and scandalous. Perhaps it is unfashionable to highlight the rampant homophobia that still exists in these racially diverse, religiously fundamental, and economically depressed areas, but some recent examples from our Campaign deserve a hearing.
For weeks leading up to the Campaign, the co-directors called all of the assemblypersons and senators with whom we wanted to have a conversation. While some offices were disorganized and in others personnel was lacking, which made it difficult to schedule a meeting with the legislator or the chief-of-staff, other offices were clear in their unwillingness to have a conversation with us about marriage equality. Two such representatives in NYC, representing districts where most oppose marriage equality, refused a conference with us.
Senator Huntley, an African American female, dodged our many attempts to schedule a conference. Consequently, we arrived at her office ready to have the discussion anyway. Her third in command decided to meet with us to stave off any controversy that would ensue had she continued to refuse us. We sat down at a conference table in the back of her office. After exchanging the necessary pleasantries, we began to talk about marriage for the BGLT community. Huntley’s representative informed us that the Senator did not support marriage equality, civil unions, or any approximations thereof.
First, Savannah and I contested that equal protection under the law promised under the Fourteenth Amendment compelled the Senator to vote in favor of marriage equality. Second, we tried to make analogies between the civil rights’ struggle for African Americans and the BGLT community’s struggle for marriage rights. Both of these attempts failed, and the reasoning that was given by the Huntley office as to why same-sex couples should not yet have the freedom to marry was utterly appalling. Huntley’s representative spoke of the substantial sacrifice that women and African Americans gave for equality and their freedoms: hundreds of years, deaths of leaders and activists, deaths of bystanders, and the deaths of children. Surely, as Savannah and I remembered these sacrifices, we felt sorrow that freedom had to be secured at such a high cost. And even though women and racial minorities are still fiercely contending for their rights to this very day, this redemptive suffering and death has delivered them countless victories for freedom and equality. Likewise, Soulforce Q is continuing the struggle for civil rights in American by advocating for marriage equality for same-sex couples. This is where Huntley’s representative took a caustic, insulting, hateful, and absurd turn. She claimed that the BGLT community had not suffered enough, and that we could not expect to have marriage rights so soon. We had to put in our dues. She claimed that more time must elapse, and that more BGLT people and their children must suffer and die. I could not believe that I was listening to such inflammatory messages out of this woman’s mouth. That people have to die for their freedom is deplorable, but that we have come to expect that there is a certain threshold of pain, suffering, and death that a certain minority must exceed – as if “earning their stripes” – in order to garner their freedom is downright ghastly. We could not stomach any more of the conversation, and politely excused ourselves.
The next day the South Bus traveled to the Bronx to meet with yet another Senator who refused us a hearing. Senator Reverend Ruben Diaz, an African American minister in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, vehemently denied us any opportunity to sit with him or his staff for a conversation about marriage equality. Therefore, because Soulforce believes in the inherent value of civic engagement and peaceful discourse, we traveled to Diaz’s office to give him an opportunity to rectify his undemocratic approach to this conversation. Upon our arrival we were met by hostility, and were refused a meeting. Upon hearing this, we staged a sit-in on the floor of Diaz’s office (for press coverage see: www.nypress.com/blogx/display_blog.cfm?bid=23356038). By force of police intervention, we were removed from the Diaz’s office, and with police support we protested and passed out literature outside.
Should we expect this attitude from our elected officials? Not only do some refuse to meet with us but are thoroughly dedicated to our persecution. How can women and racial minorities who know the scourge of discrimination and inequality contribute to the barbarism and brutality perpetuated on gays and lesbians? Why do Dr. King’s words that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” not apply? Can we not see that the civil rights advancement of one group, in this case the BGLT community, means the civil rights advancement of all groups? Certainly, African Americans and women have a long way to go in achieving full equality in our society, but do they honestly think that by impeding the civil rights progression of BGLT folk will give way to the acceleration of their own?
As I reflect on these experiences, I believe that what is at work in these racially mixed areas has very little to do with race. Such an attribution of blame would be too reductionistic. Rather, these legislators represent racially diverse districts that are economically disadvantaged and are very religiously conservative. Perhaps, as Soulforce has maintained since it was founded, that oppression of the BGLT community stems largely from conservative/fundamentalist religion than any other one determinant.
Nevertheless, there are always counter-examples that thwart stereotypes and broad brushstrokes of mischaracterization of any one ‘type’ of social grouping. For instance, among the many reassurances I had of democracy on the Right to Marry Campaign came on our last meeting – Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell, IV. Powell, from a Puerto Rican family who represents a Latino/a community was in full support of marriage equality. He informed me that he feels as if the issue is a matter of conscience; and must support equal rights for BGLT people. I was heartened by the fact that Powell and others in his community can make a distinction between religious views and civil rights in a democracy. In fact, Powell takes such a strong stance on the issue not in spite of religion but because of his Christian faith.
I concluded that while race, religion, socio-economic status, and other known and unknown characteristics may tend to lead a certain demographic to vote for or against marriage equality, America must see that extending rights and privileges to this particular minority group can only strengthen democracy, prosper community, strengthen marriage, and protect children.