African-Americans And Gay Marriage: It's Complicated

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on two cases involving same-sex marriage, a new documentary takes a look at what same-sex marriage means for African-Americans. Host Michel Martin speaks with Yoruba Richen, the director of The New Black to find out what inspired the film.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Among the many explosive issues the Supreme Court is expected to take on this year is the issue of same-sex marriage: whether same-sex couples should have the same benefits as straight ones. But one of the most sensitive aspects of that issue is the element of race. Documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen takes on both of those issues in a new documentary called "The New Black."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "THE NEW BLACK")

SHARON LETTMAN-HICKS: LGBT rights is in its revolutionary phase right now. It's frightening for some. It's revolutionary for others. But what does that mean for black people who happen to be LGBT. My quest in black LGBT equality is about black folks rising up. It is my people. I'm a sistah in the movement. That's "sistah," S-I-S-T-A-H. Let's be clear. This is the unfinished business of black people being free.

MARTIN: The film is on the festival circuit now. It takes a close look at how attitudes about homosexuality among African Americans are evolving. And it focuses on many players in last year's debate about marriage equality in Maryland. And the filmmaker, Yoruba Richen, is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

YORUBA RICHEN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us about the title, why "The New Black"?

RICHEN: Well I chose that title, which actually came to me pretty early as I was developing the film. You know, sometimes titles can come late on the process but, basically, there was an article - a cover in the magazine, in a gay magazine, I believe it was The Advocate, that came out in the late '90s, early 2000s that said, "is gay the new black?" - posted that on the cover. And it was a real uproar in the LGBT community, in the African-American community, especially in the African-American gay community. And I felt that that title really kind of synthesized how provocative this issue was. Both looking at race within the LGBT community and the sexuality within the black community.

MARTIN: But also - it does intertwine these kind of two ideas. I mean, you said that you started thinking about this shortly after President Obama was first elected in 2008 and in that same election, California voters voted to repeal what had been legal approval of same-sex marriages there, and you also make a point of saying that it is true - it is true that in the sort of initial analysis of those results, that there are a lot of people that blamed - or credited, let's say - black voters with that result. So is part of the message here that these two histories are intertwined or is it asking the question of whether they are?

RICHEN: Well, it's more, I think, asking the question of whether they are. You know, I was recently asked if there are similarities. And I said, you know, there are differences and there are similarities. So what I hope the film does is be able to get at some of that complexity. And I'm not interested as a filmmaker in giving answers necessarily, but in provoking the question and letting the viewer grapple with these questions.

In a lot of ways, you know, this - I started filming this over the last three years and history has changed so much that I've grappled with these issues. And, you know, I think you see the people on both sides also grappling with it in the film.

MARTIN: I want to play two clips from the documentary, and the first is from a woman named Irene Huskens, from Maryland. You know, her partner adopted two children, in this clip she talks about the children asking about marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "THE NEW BLACK")

IRENE HUSKENS: Marquise(ph) had asked, when are you and Mommy getting married? Well we're working on it, we're working on it. Why can't it just be you the way it is for everyone else? Why wouldn't you want my children to have the same rights and benefits and whatever else comes with marriage than yours? Equality never hurt anyone.

MARTIN: But now I want to play a clip from Pastor Derek McCoy. He's been a guest on this program. He's been a very outspoken activist, campaigning against the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland, and this is his perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "THE NEW BLACK")

DEREK MCCOY: The Bible's very clear; marriage came from Scripture. It's a unique relationship between a man and a woman that God establishes and he defined and I don't get to redefine. Our deal is not to put a stop on somebody's love, people can choose to live however they want to live. What we're saying is they just don't have the right to redefine marriage for everybody.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I wanted to play those two clips back to back is because you kind of toggle back and forth between the advocates on both sides. Can we just ask you, honestly, do you have a personal opinion about this in this debate?

RICHEN: I mean, you know, I think it comes through in the film, I believe in equality and I'm a social justice person. And so I believe that, in marriage equality, for sure, yes. As I said, it's really not about what I feel. I was so interested in exploring and diving deep into this issue. We had seen, you know, as you said - stated in the beginning, African-Americans being blamed, or credited. We'd seen the black community being considered more homophobic than other communities, and that became a narrative that was throughout the press, you know.

Yet there was nothing that - and examining what these feelings were - what the evolution was around this issue. And why there is specific, you know, for the black church, especially, and the black community, why there are specific issues around using civil rights from, you know, the African-American experience to the LGBT experience. Why there are - why it was especially, you know, shocking for many to see the black church or black church leaders take a stance against another person's rights. I just thought it was a very complicated subject.

MARTIN: Well, what did you come up with, though, because those arguments have already been heard. I mean, we've been hearing this for the last three years. What do you think you're telling us that's new? What did you discover at the point of spending time with these people that you think kind of adds to the discussion?

RICHEN: One of the things that I learned over these last few years, doing this film, is how the issue of family, and this idea of family, has a very unique place in the African-American community and experience. And that's really on both sides. Pastor Derek McCoy talks about how we weren't allowed to have family and how as black people, you know, during slavery, jumping the broom - and how that gives, you know, in his perspective, that sacred unit of family, because of that history, you know, shouldn't be changed or shouldn't be destroyed.

And then on the other side, with acceptance, with black LGBT folks - that family is something that we have always taken a refuge in because of racism, because of the experience that we've had in the black community. So for black LGBT people, that family structure is maybe a bit different than for white LGBT community. So that idea of being sanctioned in terms of your relationship is very - you know, can be very important.

MARTIN: How did you feel at the end of this process? Did you - you got two groups of people who you make a point in the film really want to be understood by the people they value most. How did you feel at the end of it? Did you feel that that kind of sense of understanding, mutuality was getting closer, or not?

RICHEN: Well, I think on a broader level I felt it was getting closer. And that's because of, you know, history was being made during the filming of the documentary, which was incredible. We had, you know, President Obama coming out in support of marriage equality. We had the NAACP, Ben Jealous, speaking forcefully.

In Maryland in particular, you had vocal support from the black church. And you felt, even in, you know, the man on the street interviews that I did in the film, you felt an evolution happening. I felt like I was kind of seeing it and witnessing it. So, you know, I think on the broader scale, there is a movement towards equality.

Now I also, you know, emphasize that marriage equality isn't the end-all be-all for the LGBT community, I don't think, and lots of other people don't think, and there's - you know, the fight will still continue for equality, but I think what we've seen in these last few years, within America as a whole, and within the black community in particular, is a real movement and an evolution on the issue.

MARTIN: Given that you've, you know, outed yourself as a person who supports same-sex marriage, I do want to ask you - in the course of recording this film, did you find yourself having sympathy for the people who oppose it?

RICHEN: There's some very compelling issues that the black family faces, that the black community faces. I understand that we, you know - have because of our, you know, specific, arguably more fragile family units, that there may be a tendency to say, you know, we already, you know, don't have our fathers in our households. So having this gay marriage thing is only going to open that up or make that worse.

And it's not that I agree with that conclusion but I understand where that comes from, you know. And I understand where it comes from, where - you know, what we fought and died for in the civil rights movement, you know, through slavery and the civil rights movement - that there is a hesitancy and a resistance to other people claiming that, and taking that movement.

Again, I don't necessarily agree with that. I think civil rights is civil rights, but I understand that our specific history - which often, you know, arguably gets overlooked and denigrated and not - you know, that for another group to come in and make these gains, I see where that - you know, how that tension arises.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things I found compelling about the film, for myself, is that - the interviews with both people where they wanted respect. With people on both sides of the argument who really wanted to be respected for their point of view. I mean, on the anti-marriage equality side, one of the interviews I found compelling were with some of the pastors who were disturbed by the idea that it was just assumed that they weren't acting under their own agency or out of their own convictions, but that they had to have been, you know, paid by rich white people.

RICHEN: Sure.

MARTIN: And how insulting that they found that.

RICHEN: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, and on the other side, the people who were either gay or who supported marriage equality, you know, their argument that people just kind of assume that they hadn't thought about it carefully. Or that it really wasn't a matter of deep conviction for them also.

Have people - have the different people in the film had a chance to see it? I would be curious about what their reaction would be, since you film each of them kind of doing their own thing separately. But a lot of these people were related, you know, they had a lot of connections. And Maryland is not a large state, you know, you can drive around it in the course of a day.

RICHEN: Right, right. Exactly.

MARTIN: And I was wondering whether any of the people who've seen it, who were pictured in the film, have they talked of any of these people on the other side?

RICHEN: Well, we are actually - that's going to be happening. We've just - we've literally just finished the film. And so that is something that's going to be happening and I'm very excited for that conversation to happen between, you know, those different sides. And, especially, the folks who were working against the bill.

And I just want to say too - you said the thing about respect and this, you know, I think the way that we've put these rights, and especially marriage equality, up for vote and for a prop - you know, in these propositions or these referendums or these initiatives - that also doesn't necessarily bring out, you know, that conversation and dialogue that helps us move towards a greater understanding.

But, you know, that's where we are in terms of our political system. And so that's also why I chose to do this story, because you have these soundbites and you have these, you know, things that you see on the news sort of charting what the polls are. But how do we get to, you know, further conversation? And, as you said, it's within our own families sometimes - these differing views and these different conversations. And we show that in the film.

MARTIN: Yoruba Richen is the producer and director of the documentary "The New Black." It premiered at the L.A. Film Festival over the weekend. It will be featured in a number of film festivals coming up this summer. And we caught up with her at our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Yoruba, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RICHEN: Thank you. It was great to be here.

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