As a man of African-American heritage of a certain age, watching the debate over marriage equality in D.C. is like watching a hazy, black-and-white version of an old television show. The actors have changed, the terms are different, but there is something very recognizable about this show. Oh, I get it. It’s just … different. It’s not because we want to discriminate.
I see Council member Marion Berry voting against marriage equality, claiming that he is otherwise opposed to discrimination against the LGBT community. It’s a long way from his time as a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to today, when he’s figuring out what kind of discrimination is OK. His four marriages prove that he is something of an expert. And as my aunt used to say, denial is not just a river in Africa.
I see the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington threatening the city, holding hostage those most vulnerable – the poor, the sick, the elderly, the homeless and the orphaned – to their political position. Excuse me, adhering to their faith. What they have said to the city (to the world, really) is that if they have to operate in a city that legalizes marriage equality, then they will not – cannot – operate their city-subsidized human service contracts.
This version of “adhering to their faith” reminds me of a story a student from France recently related to me. Apparently right-wing fundamentalists in parts of France add pork to the soup when they feed the homeless and the hungry. This is not an attempt to add protein, but done because they know that those who are Muslim (and mostly immigrant) will not partake. They want to feed the poor, but only some of the poor. The Archdiocese wants to be Christ like, but only on certain points. Their motto appears not to be WWJD (What would Jesus Do?) but OWOTB (Our Way Or The Beltway).
I see other ministers claiming that if marriage equality becomes law it will cause a “bloodletting.” They might as well be standing in the doors of District buildings channeling George Wallace, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” I am certain that if Wallace were here today he would agree with them, and that he would be standing with those same ministers, side by side, hands clasped together as only men united in a spirit of joined purpose can hold hands. Legally.
What’s my beef, you say? Why is a heterosexual African-American man with a wife and children taking on an issue that doesn’t directly affect his life?
Because I remember what Walter Reuther did.
Walter Reuther was the founder of the United Auto Workers, and also helped to found Americans for Democratic Action, which I am now privileged to lead. I have an old album with the speeches from the 1963 Civil Rights March. The album includes speeches from A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Dr. King and Reuther. He was not African American and did not face the racial discrimination and segregation that Dr. King was struggling to end, but he knew wrong when he saw it and had the courage to confront it. So he put the UAW into the middle of the civil rights movement, adding tens of thousands of white allies and mainstream credibility to the cause. It was great for the civil rights movement and we live in a better, fairer country because of it.
I am a product of that movement, and I know it. I am a product of the labor movement, and I know it. I know that an injustice to one is an injustice to all and, like the late Walter Reuther, I know discrimination when I see it.
Permitting some marriages but not others is both unfair and, I believe, unconstitutional. It is a symbol of how our government values some people — and their relationships — more than others. And it is reminiscent of a time we had hoped was long forgotten when marriages between people of different races were forbidden for the same irrational reasons given now. That is why I am making marriage equality a priority for ADA and why I seek to encourage my heterosexual brothers and sisters to do our part to help others.
Nobody likes to be called a bigot. But if you think that some adults can be in legally binding committed relationships, for richer or poorer, through sickness and health, as long as they both shall live, but it can’t be a marriage because that’s … different; well, let me put it this way: Imagine you are watching this show in black and white.
Michael J. Wilson is national director of Americans for Democratic Action. Reach him via www.adaction.org.