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Marriage equality and race

Our view: Advocates in Maryland wisely seek to make the struggle for equal rights a cornerstone of solidarity between blacks and gays

6:17 PM EDT, November 1, 2011

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After narrowly failing to pass a gay marriage bill this year, advocates in Maryland are putting together a savvy and high-powered campaign to persuade a few holdout delegates to embrace the issue. And they're aiming it straight at the constituency that may be key to the legislation's chances in the General Assembly and at the ballot box if it is petitioned to referendum: African-Americans.

A gay marriage bill cleared the Senate this year but was withdrawn from the House of Delegates when it became clear that supporters were a few votes shy. In particular, proponents had trouble convincing some Democrats from Prince George's County and Baltimore City who were under pressure from African-American church leaders who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds.

The last-minute defection of black lawmakers was unfortunate in that it revealed a persistent if seldom-discussed lack of common cause between the African-American and gay communities. Although both groups historically have been victims of bigotry and discrimination, many blacks resent comparisons between the civil rights movement and efforts to achieve equality for gays and lesbians. In fact, a recent poll by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies found the state as a whole evenly divided on the question of gay marriage but black voters strongly against it, 59 percent to 41 percent.

Part of their discomfort appears to stem from a feeling that being gay is a "choice" that individuals make, rather than a condition over which one has no control, such as the color of one's skin. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that sexual orientation is no more a matter of individual choice than race; people are born hard-wired with a propensity to be heterosexual or homosexual, and there is nothing they can do to change it.

A similar argument suggests that even if homosexuality is inherent, individuals can still escape the consequences of bigotry and discrimination by concealing that part of themselves while conforming to heterosexual norms. That was the idea behind the "don't ask, don't tell" rule that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military as long as they kept quiet about their sexual orientation.

But the injustice of that policy and the idea behind it was made clear by recently retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who before he left office publicly denounced it for requiring soldiers to lie about who they are in order to defend their country. No vision of social justice can include forcing some people to conceal their identities.

Equal rights for all ought to unite African-Americans and gays, not divide them. That is why it's smart that three of the first four video testimonials issued by the umbrella advocacy group Marylanders for Marriage Equality feature prominent African-Americans — former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and actress Mo'Nique. (Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was not publicly involved in this year's gay marriage effort but has pledged to sponsor the bill next year, is the fourth.) They aim to prick the conscience of African-American church leaders, who are well aware of how the Bible was once used to justify slavery and segregation, by framing the issue as a matter of promoting social justice and strengthening families rather than by overt references to the civil rights movement.

Last year, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Chairwoman Roslyn Brock reached out to gay and lesbian advocacy groups in a public show of solidarity in the fight against discrimination based on sexual and gender orientation. Mr. Jealous and Ms. Brock are the youngest individuals ever to hold the two top posts in the nation's oldest civil rights organization, and it's perhaps no coincidence that they, like many of their generation, are more accepting than their elders of an expansive vision of social justice that includes defending gay and lesbian rights as part of the NAACP's historic mission. Marriage equality should be part of that struggle. As Mr. Bond, a former chairman of the NAACP, wrote in a letter to The Sun this year during the debate over gay marriage in the legislature, "discrimination is wrong, no matter who the victim is."