African Americans played a key role in ensuring the passage of marriage equality in Maryland. On Nov. 6, Maryland, Maine and Washington became the first states to confirm marriage equality at the ballot box. On the surface, you might suspect that if voters are going to vote in support of marriage equality, then it would obviously be in states that supported President Obama in national elections. When you dig deeper, however, there is a much different story that defies what has been passing as conventional wisdom.
In previous elections, the theory has been that marriage equality couldn’t pass at the ballot box in elections with heavy turnout among African Americans and other communities of color. This theory was particularly pronounced in California, a progressive state that voted against marriage equality in 2008.
Thus, in Maryland, a state in which the percentage of African Americans is the fourth largest in the nation, passing marriage equality is particularly notable. In Maryland, nearly one in three voters is African American. As in 2008, African-American turnout was high in this election because President Obama, who is very popular with African Americans, was on the ballot. Thus, it was not possible to win marriage equality in Maryland without significant African-American support. The campaign did a great job of getting high-profile African Americans to publicly speak in support of marriage equality. President Obama, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, civil rights leader Julian Bond, actress Mo’Nique, Baltimore Raven Brendan Ayanbadejo and the NAACP are just a sampling of some of the high-profile support. Equally as important, Rev. Delman Coates of Prince George’s County and Rev. Donte Hickman of Baltimore, who both lead large, influential congregations in their respective districts, provided high-profile religious support, which was particularly important because many African Americans who oppose marriage equality base their opposition on religious beliefs.
Out of Maryland’s 24 counties, predominantly African-American Baltimore City had the third highest percentage of those in favor of marriage equality with 57.5 percent. Predominately African-American Prince George’s County had the 8th highest percentage in favor of marriage equality with 48.9 percent. Contrast that with majority white Caroline County, where only 37 percent voted in favor, Dorchester County, where only 36.9 percent voted in favor, and Somerset County, where 34.1 percent voted in favor.
African Americans have a long history of being discriminated against and, as a result, most of us usually go out of our way to ensure that we are not discriminating against others. Messaging that took this into account is the main reason the measure passed. In past campaigns, there was not as much of a concerted effort to directly target messages toward African Americans or, if there was, the messages were not as effective because there were not as many African Americans playing lead roles in the campaign as there were in Maryland.
While marriage equality has an enormous impact on all gays and lesbians who hope to marry, in some ways, its impact can be even larger on many LGBT African Americans who desire to do so. While many LGBT African Americans have a myriad of issues to be concerned about, such as economic issues and youth homelessness, for those who desire to get married, having that right available in one’s home state can make a difference in having access to marriage.
Several states have performed same-sex marriages for years. Until Washington, D.C. started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in March 2010, the closest state that would perform same-sex marriages was Connecticut. Thus, the ability to access the institution of marriage became one of finances. Lower income couples in Maryland simply could not afford to travel to Connecticut or one of the other equal-marriage states prior to 2010 to get married. Since there is still a large economic gap in this country that corresponds with race, this lack of access adversely impacted LGBT African Americans and other people of color.
Although I now live in D.C., I was raised in Prince George’s County, and the electoral results in Maryland are particularly promising to those of us who are both African American and LGBT. Often fighting for visibility in both the mainstream African-American community and within the larger LGBT community, those of us with dual identities find the support of high-profile African Americans personally affirming. Thus, these election results, which would not have happened without a strong coalition of people of all races and sexual orientations, are just another example that we are moving in the right direction.
Lateefah Williams is president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District’s largest LGBT political organization. She is the first African-American woman to serve in the position. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @lateefahwms.