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Gay Activists, Black Ministers Seek Common Ground

When the District of Columbia city council voted 12-1 recently to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, a raucous protest led by African-American ministers erupted in the hallway outside council chambers.

Security officers quelled the pandemonium, but not before video and cell phone cameras captured images of the confrontation — with councilman Marion Barry, who cast the lone dissenting vote, predicting "civil war" over the issue in the D.C. black community.

Watching the commotion was the Rev. Robert Hardies, who happened to be in City Hall on another matter when the ministers stormed the corridor.

"I was heartbroken," says Hardies, a gay man who is senior minister at the city's historic All Souls Church, Unitarian.

"I had vowed to myself that after what happened in California, when the gay marriage issue came to Washington, D.C., we would do it differently and prevent the racial divide," he said.

Lessons From California

What happened in California was Proposition 8, the successful 2008 effort in which voters amended the state constitution to bar same-sex marriages, and, in doing so, deeply divided the state.

The state Supreme Court earlier this week upheld the ban, but also ruled that the 18,000 or so same-sex couples who had married in the brief period during which gay marriage was legal remain joined in the eyes of the state. It was the same court that in May 2008 had ruled that gay couples could marry.

Among the most vocal proponents of the effort to roll back gay marriage in California were Catholic organizations; members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which poured millions into the battle; and leaders of many black churches — some of whom had been active in the civil rights movement.

A CNN exit poll estimated that 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in the state-wide referendum supported Proposition 8.

Though California has been one setback in a string of gains for gay marriage advocates — Maine recently became the fifth state to legalize such unions — the issue remains a divisive and emotional one in the black community.

Wake-Up Call

The tumultuous protest outside D.C. City Hall chambers, Hardies says, was a clarion call. It provided a potent glimpse at the barriers faced by gay marriage activists among some in the African-American religious community.

In a scathing column written just days after the protest, author and syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald demanded that blacks confront their homophobia — and singled out for criticism D.C. councilman Barry, the city's former mayor and a longtime supporter of gay rights.

Barry said he opposed the council's measure because almost all of the people who live in the city ward he represents are black, and "we don't have but a handful of openly gay residents."

"There's something to be said for representing one's constituencies," Pitts wrote. "But there is more to be said for leading them."

"Barry's failure to understand the difference is galling in light of the fact that he was once a leader in the civil rights movement," Pitts said.

Silver Lining

Despite the disconnect noted by Pitts, who is African-American, gay leaders say they see a silver lining in D.C.

The council's overwhelming vote to recognize gay marriages, they say, signaled progress that is possible in black-majority communities like Washington, where the Census Bureau estimates that nearly 56 percent of the city's 591,833 residents are African-American.

"We are in a way better situation now than we ever were as far as outreach in the African-American community," says Donna Payne, associate director of diversity for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization.

The anti-gay clerics "just do not have the power that they had in 2004, when the Federal Marriage Amendment was brought to Congress," she says.

Changing Minds, Changing Tenor

The measure, which failed, would have changed the U.S. Constitution to limit marriage to between one man and one woman. Leaders of some of the nation's largest black Christian denominations joined the evangelical right to urge passage of the amendment.

Payne insists that times have changed. Her organization and others, she says, including the African American Ministers Leadership Council and the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil right group devoted to gay rights, have all been reaching out to black churches.

The ministers' organization recently held a panel, "Homophobia in the Black Church," at Howard University School of Divinity, a traditionally black institution.

"Ten years ago," Payne says, "Howard divinity school didn't even want to discuss the issue. That was huge progress."

Both Payne and Hardies say that they don't measure progress by just the minds they might change, but by how successful they are in changing the tenor of the dialogue.

"We're trying to get the message across about gay marriage being about love, and the benefits that come from that," she says.

Assuring ministers that supporting or being agnostic on the issue of same-sex marriage doesn't mean they have to perform such ceremonies in their churches has also helped, they say.

"One thing that really troubles us is that Marion Barry said this would be a civil war," Hardies said. "War is not the right way to talk about an issue that involves love."

Battle Intensifies in D.C

While the battle over gay marriage plays out nationwide, the debate in the nation's capital has also intensified.

A coalition of ministers and others opposed to gay marriage, and led by an African-American bishop from Maryland, plans to force a referendum in D.C. that, if successful, would block the council's decision to recognize same-sex unions.

They need to collect 21,000 signatures to force the vote.

On Capitol Hill, conservative House lawmakers from places including Ohio and Oklahoma have filed legislation that would overturn the D.C. decision. None of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have signed on.

And next week Hardies, who is white, and a diverse group of D.C. ministers and advocates will announce their own coalition to "give voice to people of faith who support full marriage equality."

"We want to demonstrate that the way the media and opponents of marriage equality portray this as a racial-cultural divide is not the case," he said. "There is much more diversity of opinion than the polarized image that opponents and the media have been using as their frame."

Hardies may be on to something.

Barry has declined to comment on his vote. But a short time later, members of the Democratic organization in the ward he represents voted 21-11 in favor of the council's decision to recognize gay marriages. The Rev. Dennis Wiley of the Covenant Baptist Church spoke in favor of the resolution to support the council. He opened his remarks by paraphrasing a famous quote about conscience by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I have arrived at my position on same sex marriage," Wiley said, "not because I think it is safe or popular, but because I believe it is right."

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