Gaily Ever After: Is Gay Marriage the New Civil Rights Struggle or Has It Co-Opted a Legacy?

By Hernandez, Daisy | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Gaily Ever After: Is Gay Marriage the New Civil Rights Struggle or Has It Co-Opted a Legacy?


Hernandez, Daisy, Colorlines Magazine


That night, the room was packed at the gay community center in New York's Greenwich Village. Surely something had to be done. Bush had announced his support for a proposed federal amendment that would effectively ban gay marriage.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

So, there was talk of strategies. There were speeches about history and one's place in time. There was mention of Rosa Parks.

It was that last part which didn't sit well with Sylvia Samuels and Diane Gallagher as they surveyed the speakers. "My reaction was, 'Where do these people stand on other issues that relate to black people?'" recalled Samuels, a black lesbian.

Gallagher, who is white, remembered looking at the other faces in the crowd and onstage. "It made me have this visceral reaction," she said, "because I'm not sure these people would have been active in the civil rights movement."

The two women had been part of the civil rights and antiwar protest movements in the late 1960s and '70s. An interracial couple, they know homophobia and racism well. They also know love. They met 24 years ago in Greenwich Village and raised two girls. Photographs show them now in their 50s, still smiling, one's hair wavy, the other's locks cut short. They are doting grandmothers--and suing the state of New York for the right to marry.

Their desire to wed, and likewise their criticisms, embody the question that has been bandied about since Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage last November: Is gay marriage the next civil rights struggle? Or, is it the co-opting of a movement?

Polls have found mixed reactions to gay marriage among people of color. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of blacks and whites opposed gay marriage, but a New York Times poll reported black opposition at 75 percent. In New Jersey, where a lawsuit to legalize gay marriage is pending, polls found 31 percent of Latinos opposed gay marriage compared to 53 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Asians.

Few polls, if any, however, have queried lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of color. In fact, writing about gay marriage brings to mind the book, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. A treatise on gay marriage could be titled "All the Gays Are White, All the Ministers are Black, But No One Asked the Rest of Us."

Interviews with more than a dozen LGBT people of color--from a couple now legally married with children in Massachusetts to a college graduate who identifies herself as a "conscientious objector to the status quo"--suggest a mixed reaction to the fight for gay marriage. Unsurprisingly, the right to marry has wide support among LGBT of color. But the comparison to the civil rights movement has bred hostility where it was meant to sow solidarity, and what the impact of gay marriage will be for LGBT of color is the real subject of debate.

Comparing the "Single Trait"

Ministers might be riled up about sins of the flesh, but the debate around gay marriage has a real racial edge. As the first gay wedding preparations were underway in Massachusetts in May, the state's governor, Mitt Romney, told city clerks they could enact a 1913 law barring out-of-state couples from marrying if their home states wouldn't recognize the marriage. The law was originally intended to bar interracial couplings. Another, perhaps cruder, homage to the past was paid by Gregory Daniels, a Chicago black minister, who said he would "ride" with the KKK if they were against gay marriage.

In Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the case that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, the state's Supreme Judicial Court justices wrote that "for decades, indeed centuries, in much of this country ... no lawful marriage was possible between white and black Americans." They referenced Perez v. Sharp and Loving v. Virginia, historic cases that legalized interracial marriage and then compared those cases to gay marriage, citing the difference as "a single trait: skin color in Perez and Loving, sexual orientation here. …

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