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November 30, 2009

Answering WaPo op-ed: Racial pawns in the battle for same-sex marriage

Taylor Harris, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, has a commentary in the Nov. 28 Washington Post in which he suggests that marriage-equality advocates, including NAACP chairman Julian Bond, are seeking to use him as a “racial pawn.”

In response to Bond’s statement that “Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality,” Harris writes, “[W]hen he says ‘equality,’ he isn’t talking about the right to vote, the right to eat at a public restaurant, the right to attend an integrated school or the right to a fair trial. He is talking about the right to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.”

Harris’s implication is that gays should not be allowed to marry because they didn’t face the same discrimination as blacks. First, many gay people are black. Second, I thought the message of the civil rights movement was that Jefferson's phrase “all men are created equal” means that equal rights are the birthright of everyone. Harris, by contrast, seems to be saying that only people whose ancestors were victims of particularly brutal discrimination are entitled to civil rights. This notion that civil rights belong exclusively to African Americans makes a hash of what the leaders of the civil rights movement said they were fighting for.

Harris's comment about redefining marriage reminds me of Judge Leon Bazile’s famous statement in the Loving case, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” How is Harris’s disapproval of same-sex marriages any more enlightened than the views of Judge Bazile?

I know that interracial marriage does not poll well in the black community, the reasons for which would make for an interesting seminar. The fact remains that since 1967, race has not been a legal basis for discriminating in the issuance of marriage licenses. And disapproval of interracial marriages does not appear to have dissuaded many black voters from electing a mixed-race man President.

Other marriage traditions that have fallen by the wayside include treating adultery as grounds not only for divorce but for felony charges; criminalizing contraception even for married couples; and treating wives as their husband’s property. I doubt that Harris is troubled by the loss of those traditions, but if so, she may want to contact former Senator Rick Santorum. Another lost tradition is the old European droit du signeur, by which the lord of an estate was entitled to take the virginity of the women under his patronage on their wedding nights. This provided the central plot element in The Marriage of Figaro. A similar tradition of exploitation survived into twentieth century America, as seen in posthumous revelations about Strom Thurmond.

The demise of those unjust traditions is generally regarded favorably. Harris’s only basis for treating the rise of same-sex marriage differently is her “moral aversion,” which likely rests upon the usual biblical passages like Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 — though Scripture was also historically cited in support of slavery and the subordination of women. These passages are immediately adjacent to a flood of barbaric prescriptions for blood on various people’s heads, words whose presumably equal divine authorship inspires not a shred of concern in anyone.

Some African Americans object if any gay rights supporter speaks about civil rights. In fact, most of us readily acknowledge the significant differences between the black civil rights struggle and the gay rights struggle. All struggles are different. But those who object to any comparison whatsoever between the two should talk to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has the strongest pro-gay voting record of any group in Congress. Harris anticipates this by saying to Bond (whose quest for a congressional seat was thwarted by John Lewis in 1986): “I'm sorry, Julian. I wasn’t there with you in 1963 to fight, but I still can’t be your George Wallace today.” Really? Since Harris wasn’t there in 1963, perhaps she ought to treat a civil rights veteran like Bond with greater respect. No one compared Harris to George Wallace. Garden-variety prejudice does not rise (or descend) to that level.

Harris’s views notwithstanding, many marriage equality supporters here in D.C. are black, including members of the clergy and a majority of the African American members of the D.C. Council. And contrary to Harris’s implication, my fellow advocates and I have often taken on white evangelicals, including the cynical way they have been shopping among black ministers looking for camouflage in the culture wars. If Harris is concerned about being treated as a pawn, she should look there.

Despite dressing up in victim’s drag, Harris appears quite comfortable wearing the mantle of privilege. For her, civil rights are not a challenging reality but a comforting abstraction undiminished by being denied to people she doesn’t like. What says WASP better than that?

Gay people are taxpaying citizens and members of our communities. All we want is equal protection of the law for ourselves and our families. The principal objection to this is a religious one, which will not do in a country whose constitution prohibits the establishment of religion. Harris appears to have quite a chip on her shoulder, and tries to turn it into a racial grievance. Who is helped by this ploy? I commend to her the words of poet Maya Angelou: “Look into your sister’s eyes, look into your brother’s face, and say simply, very simply, with hope, ‘Good morning.’”

Tomorrow morning (Dec. 1), I look forward to being present as the D.C. Council holds its first reading and vote on Bill 18-482, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009. None will be harmed by that vote, but many will be lifted up.

Update: I learned from this link that Taylor Harris is in fact a woman. My bad. The possibility should have occurred to me, since I have a great niece named Taylor. I am correcting the pronouns in the piece.

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The principal objection to this is a religious one, which will not do in a country whose constitution prohibits the establishment of religion.

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