'Marriage Equality' And The Civil Rights Movement

Same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue for many gay Americans, but many African Americans disagree. Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Mass.), a straight, black politician, hopes to change that. Thomas Allen Harris explores Rushing's work on behalf of gay marriage in a documentary short, Marriage Equality.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

When Proposition 8 appeared on the California ballot in November 2008, exit polls reported that seven in 10 African-American voters supported the ban on same-sex marriage. Many gay rights activists cast what they call marriage equality as a civil rights issue. Many black Americans disagree. In a new documentary short, director Thomas Allen Harris tells the story of a Massachusetts politician striving to bridge that divide.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness")

State Representative BYRON RUSHING (Democrat, Massachusetts): Many black churches stood up and said they didn't want the civil definition to change, and the argument was that civil rights in this country was defined for black people. To call anything else a civil rights struggle was somehow to disparage the struggle of black people for civil rights, and that was an argument that had to be challenged.

CONAN: Civil rights veteran Byron Rushing, a member of the Massachusetts legislature; now, the subject of the film "Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness." Is gay marriage a civil rights issue? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Thomas Allen Harris directed the documentary and joins us now from our bureau in New York.

Nice to have you back.

Mr. THOMAS ALLEN HARRIS (Director, "Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness"): Thank you, Neal. Good to be back.

CONAN: As Byron Rushing notes in your film, many in the black community have not made believe to embrace gay marriage as a civil right?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, you know, I think that when one - I mean, the black community is so diverse, so I think that there are a lot - there's a lot of support within the African-American community for marriage equality on the level of, let's say, the elected officials. Many of whom have a background or come from the civil rights movement. They see the connection. Certainly, lawyers, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, those folks also see the connection between being able to get married civilly and the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

People on the street, they might feel differently. I think that a lot of it has to do with the way in which we think about marriage. We think about marriage as a church wedding, and we less often think about the legality of the contract of marriage, which is what is brilliant about Byron's - the way Bryon articulates things.

CONAN: How does he arrive at this? He - and you explain in the film as grew up in - I guess, graduated high school in 1960, was part of the civil rights movement, joined the Congress on Racial Equality and worked in the South and, well, a longtime veteran of civil rights.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think that Byron has always been someone who has championed the people who are either down and out or that need representation. And I know that he has done amazing work with regards to the African-American community in Massachusetts and Boston, establishing fair housing practices, working on busing in Massachusetts, working on establishing The African-American Meeting House as a national historic district. And he actually started working around marriage equality or at least had this - advocating around it and for the rights of gays and lesbians before the LGBT movement embraced marriage equality. So it's way back.

CONAN: Now, he says he was a little bit ahead of other people.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. And that, you know, and he - because he saw the connection between that and the civil rights movement, and, you know, and when I first met Byron, I had been in relationship for over 12 years with my partner, and I didn't think that marriage was an important part or something that I should struggle for or advocate for, with regards to where the gays and lesbians -where gay and lesbian folks should put their energies and efforts.

But after speaking with him and understanding the connection with civil rights and actually working on this as well, you know, I've actually become an advocate myself.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest, Thomas Allen Harris, documentary filmmaker. His new 15-minute picture is called "Marriage Equality."

And let's go to Mohammed(ph), Mohammed with us from Pleasanton in California.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

MOHAMMED: Thank you. I just wanted to say that I think it's 100 percent a civil rights issue. This is a right that's enshrined in the Constitution. Everyone is to be treated equally under the eyes of the law. I was born in (technical difficulty) are from another country. And I think (technical difficulty)...

CONAN: Mohammed, I think your cell phone is betraying you. We're having a hard time hearing you.

MOHAMMED: Oh, oh. Can you hear me now?

CONAN: That's a little bit better. Go ahead. Try it again.

MOHAMMED: OK. Well, what I was going to say is I was born in this country but my parents are from a different country and both an ethnic and a religious minority in this country. And I wouldn't dream about taking the rights of other people away. I would never take anyone else's rights away.

And I think it's very hypocritical of the African-American community. It's unfortunate that a lot of them voted the way they did. But I will never stand to take anyone else's rights away. If I wouldn't want it done to me I certainly wouldn't do it to someone else. And I'm - I will definitely stand with my gay and lesbian friends, the LGBT community. And they have every - they have as much rights as every other American citizen. And God bless them.

CONAN: Do your parents agree, Mohammed?

MOHAMMED: My parents are a little bit more conservative, unfortunately. So we differ quite a bit on this issue. But definitely, my - believe it or not - my religion has brought me to this view, that people should be treated equally and that people should be treated with respect and that everyone has the same rights as everyone else. My religion actually brought me to this conclusion, if you could believe it or not.

CONAN: All right, Mohammed. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Mr. HARRIS: And Neal?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HARRIS: I just wanted to step in and say that I think that, you know, there's been a lot of mischaracterization of the African-American community. You know, it wasn't just the African-American community that voted, you know, against Proposition 8.

CONAN: Hardly. Not just the African-American community, but overwhelmingly African-Americans in California voted for Proposition 8.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. Yes. And there was a lot of money that was spent to influence various ethnicities and groups to, you know, by - there's a documentary out about it, you know.

So I think that - I mean, one of the reasons I was very interested in doing this documentary is because there was so much discussion around African-Americans as the problem. And here, in Massachusetts, as you see - you'll see in the film that's showing tonight at the Harlem Stage at 7:30, you'll see that African-Americans were in vanguard in terms of leading the same-sex marriage movement in Massachusetts, and that's very rarely seen or highlighted.

So I think that, you know, it's - there's a way in which we have to be careful about assigning blame to a particular group and seeing that group as a monolith as opposed to understanding the complexities of, you know - that things are a little bit more complex than they would initially appear.

And I was really interested in making this film because so many of my white gay and lesbian friends would just blanketly(ph) state, well, African-Americans are either homophobic or against marriage equality. And that's not in my experience.

CONAN: As you say, it is not a, well, black and white issue. Forgive the analogy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But nevertheless, in the state of Maryland, gay marriage was up for vote in the legislature and it looked like it was going to pass and defeated this year. And the credit or blame, depending on your point of view, given to black churches and their influences in the legislature.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. And in D.C., marriage was made legal with the support of the African-American community.

CONAN: Some of the African-American community.

Mr. HARRIS: Some of the African-American community. But I mean, we could...

CONAN: So we go back and forth. Yes.

Let's get some other callers on the line. Let's go next to Sonny(ph) and Sonny with us from Grand Rapids.

SONNY (Caller): Hi. Thanks, Neal. I don't believe that gay marriage is anymore a civil rights issue than, say, polygamy. And I believe that, you know, marriage is equal for everyone at this point, although there's those that don't have the desire to enter into it in the way that is currently formulated. And the debate is around what marriage is and what marriage should be.

But personally as someone who doesn't support changing the definition of marriage, I don't have any malice for those on the other side of the issue. But I do believe that marriage - that the question is around marriage, not around trying to deny someone else the ability to enter into a relationship.

CONAN: So you would favor so-called civil unions, which would give these people, same-sex couples, the same rights as if they were married?

SONNY: I would. Yeah, I would favor civil unions. But I don't believe that we need to change the definition of marriage because of the religious connotation that marriage brings into the discussion. I think that civil unions would be a much more reasonable way to go about it...

CONAN: And...

SONNY: ...without bringing - without trying to change the culture around this. And, again, I don't have any malice or any hatred or anything against those who are on the other side of this issue. But I do believe that it's not a civil rights issue. It's around - it's frankly a religious issue.

CONAN: And what if, Sonny, a church was perfectly fine with marrying people of the same sex?

SONNY: Well, then they could call that marriage, you know, within their congregation. But as a society, we have to make that decision as a whole, not based on one church's view or another church's view.

CONAN: It's interesting, Thomas Allen Harris, because Byron Rushing addresses a lot of these issues in your film.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. You know, he - I mean, marriage - the benefits that we get from being married are not given by a religious institution, and Byron makes that point explicitly and convincingly. They're given by government.

It's government who, you know, gives benefits in terms of being able to have insurance for your partner, whether you're with that person for five years or 50 years, inheritance rights, the ability to - if, you know, my partner was injured somehow and ended up in the hospital, I would not be able to have access to information on him or even access to him. I'd have to actually go to his parents who are in Texas and ask them to have access to him.

So there are lots of, you know, tax issues, you know, in terms of, you know, someone in the - someone who's in the film, but doesn't actually talk about this in the film, talks about being boarders in their own home because they cannot both claim ownership of the home because they are not legally married. So they are...

SONNY: What you're describing are - those are all legal issues that could be covered very well with a civil union, and it wouldn't require the redefining of the term marriage.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, marriage by - in terms of government. I mean, first of all, civil unions are basically second class kinds of - a second class label or second class way of addressing this issue. You know, marriage has always been changing. Fifty years ago, as Byron talks about, marriage between people of two different races was illegal in this country and was widely accepted for eons...

CONAN: In most states, yes.

Mr. HARRIS: In most states - yes, I'm sorry, in most states. And so, you know, that's actually come around.

SONNY: And I understand...

Mr. HARRIS: It was illegal - I just want to say, it was illegal for African-American people who were enslaved to get married because they were outside of the law. So, you know, to be able...

SONNY: And I understand all of those points. But the thing that I think is very important to consider is that those that are pushing for the legalization of gay marriage are saying to me, who don't - a person who doesn't believe that gay marriage is something that we should adopt as a country, that my way is right and your way is wrong. And I have to admit that I'm saying to you that my way of thinking is right and your way of thinking is wrong, and at some point we don't have a way to - for both of us to be right.

And I don't want to force my opinion or anyone on - or anything on anyone else, but I think that legal benefits can be endowed to those who enter into gay marriage - or, I'm sorry, enter into gay relationships without actually calling it marriage, which in my opinion is a religious...

CONAN: Sonny, let's leave it there. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Mr. HARRIS: I think it's really great to have this perspective because I think some of that is going to be discussed later on today at the community discussion following the screening of the film at Harlem Stage. We have three ministers who are actually talking about that, in addition to politicians. And I think that where Sonny is confused is that marriage is a religious institution, and it's actually a civil institution.

CONAN: We're talking with Thomas Allen Harris. As he mentions, his new film, "Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness," debuts tonight in Harlem. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Robert on the line, Robert with us from Charlotte.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead.

ROBERT: Yeah. I think that when we get to this kind of an issue, your panelist there made an accurate point that, you know, it is a religious thing, and the marriage institution is a religious thing. And I think for so many people, it really comes down to who is your authority. And if, like me, you believe in traditional marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act really ensuring that that stays the way it is, then your authority is going to come from God and what the Bible says.

And if somebody else says, well, the God I believe in believes this way or says this way, or I don't believe in the Bible, so I can do whatever I want, it really comes down to authority. And like you said, you know, we can talk left and right, but unfortunately it's going to come down to a mixing between ethics and morals. And that's going to be a difference of what people view as being correct versus what ought to be correct.

CONAN: And...

ROBERT: And when get into that what ought to be, it all comes down to your authority.

CONAN: And I hear you, Robert. I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give...

ROBERT: Sure.

CONAN: ...Byron - Thomas Allen Harris a chance to respond. And essentially, what he is talking about is a distinction in this country. Yes, gay marriage is legal in the state of Massachusetts, where Byron Rushing is a member of the legislature. Many states, it is enshrined as the definition of marriage as one man one woman, in the state constitution, and it's going to be awhile before that can change.

Mr. HARRIS: Yes, and I think that is - that's, I mean, I just want to step back that - because when we're talking about a minority in a country, it's difficult, you know, one should never put the rights of the minority to vote for - to vote by the majority because it's always going to come out on the side of - against the minority.

And I think that it's, you know, gays and lesbians are just as deserving to have their relationships and their families validated and reap the rewards of having a stable family. And, you know, to talk about it in exclusively religious terms really subverts the origins of this country.

I mean, we - people came to this country because of their religious freedoms. So as Byron talks about in the film, you know, yes, your religion may say or your church, more specifically, may be against gay marriage, but the church down the street might be for gay marriage. So you cannot - and as long as one church is for it, you cannot say that my God or my religion is more important than yours.

CONAN: Another argument from Trump(ph) - Mark(ph), who emails this from Burnsville in Minnesota: Does seeing gay marriage as not a civil rights issue mean you see gay as a choice? If one is born gay, if it's not a choice, anti-gay policies are inherently discriminatory.

So there's another part of the argument.

Thomas Allen Harris, good luck with the film and with your presentation this evening.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you so much. People can come to the screening tonight at Aaron Davis Hall at 7:30 and buy tickets at www.harlemstage.org.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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