Elbridge James wasn't surprised when many of his fraternity brothers ridiculed him for supporting same-sex marriage.
But what James didn't expect was for a handful of his old college buddies to rise to his defense. They, too, believed that gays' and lesbians' battle for marriage is a matter of civil rights.
"We're talking about a black fraternity that has had issues with homophobia," he said. "But I think when you get the message out, and people start to listen, they realize the question is about respecting others' rights."
The experience gave James, former political action chairman for the Maryland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, hope that more blacks are willing to support gay rights than conventional wisdom might indicate.
In an effort to raise the issue of gay unions within black communities around the state, James and other activists have formed the Maryland Black Family Alliance, a group of predominantly heterosexual African-American leaders pledging their support for same-sex marriage.
"There's a scarcity of information on this issue in the black community," said James, the group's director. "The black press doesn't cover it; talk radio doesn't cover it. ... We have this sort of 'don't ask, don't tell policy' in our community."
Organizers ultimately hope to change the minds of blacks - particularly elected officials - who reject any parallel between gay unions and civil rights. They point to the outspoken support of civil rights leaders such as Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who will give the keynote speech at the annual fundraiser this weekend for Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay advocacy group.
"Our voice is very important to this movement," said Lea Gilmore, a founding member. "African-Americans, perhaps more than another other group in the U.S., understand discrimination. So we are natural allies in this movement."
The organization, which will be announced today at Morgan State University in Baltimore, is a crucial element in gay activists' strategy to fight for marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Maryland legislature this winter.
Gay advocates - still reeling from last month's ruling by Maryland's highest court upholding the state's ban of same-sex marriage - know they face an uphill climb in the General Assembly. The Legislative Black Caucus is split on the issue, with many members weighing their religious beliefs against their support for traditional civil rights.
James said some black lawmakers who are inclined to support gay and lesbian rights draw the line at gay unions.
"For them, this is uncharted territory," he said. "You're a pioneer when you are talking about supporting the civil rights of a group you never supported in your life."
Black lawmakers such as Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, a Prince George's County Democrat, have pledged support. Britt plans to introduce a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. Others have discussed endorsing civil unions, which afford some of the benefits of marriage and are seen as a compromise among politicians unwilling to back gay marriage.
Activists also point to the striking dissent by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell in last month's Court of Appeals decision. Bell, who is black, compared denying gays and lesbians the right to wed to the bans on interracial marriage that were struck down 40 years ago in the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia.
"To be sure, there are important differences between the African American experience and that of gay men and lesbians in this country, yet many of the arguments made in support of the anti-miscegenation laws were identical to those made today in opposition to same-sex marriage," Bell wrote.
"No two civil rights struggles are ever exactly the same," said Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland. "But there is certainly inspiration to be gained from the bravery and the heroism of African-Americans and the struggles they faced to be treated with dignity, respect and equality over generations."
Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., one of the Assembly's more outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage, rejects that view.
"I get really bent out of shape when you talk about gay and lesbian rights as a civil rights issue," said Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat and pastor at Rising Sun Baptist Church in Randallstown. "Whites can hide their gayness; I cannot hide my blackness."
Burns said he thinks black lawmakers will be wringing their hands over the issue this session.
"Some of them are afraid not to stand up for certain things, simply because they are afraid of not being re-elected," he said. "I ran on an anti-abortion, anti-gay and lesbian agenda, and I stand for that."
Blacks are less likely to support same-sex marriage, according to a 2004 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank on black issues. The poll found that 46 percent of blacks surveyed said they did not support same-sex marriages or civil unions, compared with 37 percent of the general population.
And an analysis from the 2004 election showed some blacks breaking with the Democratic Party to support Republican-led efforts to bar same-sex marriage in several states. James said that's because the first priority in many black communities is combating their own problems.
"The white community doesn't have a Jena 6 on their plate," he said, referring to the Louisiana case in which six black teens were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white teenager at Jena High School. "The white community doesn't face the ills of Katrina like urban black America faces. ... Urban black America faces bad schools, police harassment and court systems that don't look at our youth like they deserve a second chance.
"So, when I ask people about gay and lesbian issues, they say to me, 'Look brother, I hear what you're saying, but I got all these other things on my plate,'" James said. "But I think we can change that."