March 24, 2011 at 3:10 pm EDT | by Earl Fowlkes Jr.
Learning from our mistakes in Maryland

Many of us were helpless witnesses to the drama that played out in Annapolis, regarding the attempt to pass legislation extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in Maryland. Suddenly, what was once a sure thing became an unsure thing and finally a thing that simply was not going happen.

The votes were counted and Gov. Martin O’Malley was waiting for this all but certain law to come across his desk for signature. Somehow, defeat was snatched out of the jaws of expected victory. In this case, there is plenty of blame to spread around. Unfortunately, in many ways what occurred in Maryland also occurred in California during the highly contentious Proposition 8 process. As Yogi Berra once said, “It was déjà vu all over again.”

Much of the blame has to be placed firmly in the laps of a number prominent black churches in Prince’s George County. The ministers of those churches engaged in the type of homophobic pandering that encouraged their parishioners to believe once again that the sanctity of their marriages would be threatened by extending civil marriage rights to all citizens of Maryland.

Those churches have the right to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman for their churches only. They can marry whomever they want in their churches — only! The fact that a handful of churches saw fit to deny rights to others based on their narrow construct of what marriage for Marylanders should be by putting pressure on several elected officials is egregious.

Unfortunately, some pro-marriage groups did not learn the painful lessons from the Proposition 8 battle in California where there were limited strategies for engaging minorities groups. The International Federation of Black Prides and Baltimore Black Gay Pride attempted to meet with Equality Maryland for three months to discuss strategies for Baltimore and Prince George’s counties. Through our networks, we had been hearing that several black churches were not happy with the prospect of same-sex marriage and might organize to fight the passing of any law.  Time after time, everyone was too busy to meet with us.

Everyone thought since there were enough votes in favor of same-sex marriage that it was a done deal. We all forgot about the cult-like devotion that some people have for their pastors and follow their instructions without a second thought. Once again, not enough thought or resources were devoted — nor were there strategies developed — to gain support from black communities, particularly in Prince George’s County. The black community was taken for granted and same-sex marriage rights will be denied for at least one more year in Maryland as a result of the arrogance.

What must we do to make certain that this reversal of fortunes does not occur again? First, all interested progressive organizations need to sit down and develop strategies to appeal to the hearts and minds of African Americans in Maryland and across the country.

This must go beyond creating ads featuring same-sex couples talking about family. We must not be afraid of using the term “civil rights” and defining it in a broader context.  We must be willing to have discussions not with narrow-minded ministries and faith leaders but with the tens of thousands of black people who are undecided or decided but unmotivated to give their opinions to their elected officials as well talking with those who do not belong to a homophobic church.

Secondly, we must avoid the visceral language and reaction that will turn potential allies into enemies. Some of the e-mails received by several black elected officials not to mention comments on mainstream and LGBT websites and blogs, were equally hateful as some black minister instructing their parishioners to deny LGBT people their rights.

Those actions are not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in their fight to gain civil rights. There must also be more willingness among proponents of LGBT rights to engage in supporting issues that are important to blacks, Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders and other social issues, (e.g. education reform, immigration, job creation and training, etc.).  Several black elected officials, as well as communities of color in general, have grown tired of the narrow agenda that has been presented to them by some LGBT organizations.

Finally, we should never give ground to those church and faith organizations that will use LGBT people as scapegoats in order not to deal with their own shortcomings.  It’s amazing that a person could go to church where the love of Jesus is drowned out by hate for a group of people who only want to be treated like everyone else in accordance with the very laws that govern our nation and embody the principles of justice and equality for all.

The LGBT community — and particularly the black LGBT community — must lead the fight against those homophobes, in the words of Isaiah, to “Undo the heavy burden and let the opposed go free.” In the same vein, we must hold our LGBT and progressive organizations accountable when we are not included in the battles to gain civil rights for all of our communities.

  • I absolutely agree with you. This is an extremely productive article, as opposed to the earlier article that focused on the recommitment but was really a guise for people to play out a bitter tiff between former board and current board members. Counter-productive. Equality Maryland probably did think it was in the bag (part of me understands that and thinks you cannot blame them for that; since when do sponsors change their mind at the last minute) and was probably maxed out in those weeks leading up to the non-vote. They only have so many workers and so much time but yet the expectations on them and what they are trying to accomplish are huge. But let the past be the past. You are totally correct that teaming with your organization (and others) is critical and it is too bad that more was not done in this vein before. Hindsight of course. Had we won, and we were close, Equality Maryland would have been heros that had done everything perfectly. I hope you will attempt to reach out again and that they will accept your hand. As you said, it is going to be critical. Blacks should lead the effort here. You know your community and they need to see themselves in you and that a part of their own community is asking something of them and needs something from them.

  • It sounds like we were going to worry about the issue later at referendum time. Makes me wish that we donated more money to Equality Maryland. We needed a team focused on the legislature and a shadow team working all the while on the referendum.

  • What happened in Maryland is a perfect example of the disconnect from reality that characterizes many of our activists. I’ve heard enough of them express surprise and disbelief on hearing that we might ever expect opposition from African-Americans.

    I also agree that we should focus attention on the undecided. You don’t argue with true believers, except in an open forum where the undecided will hear you. True believers have already made up their minds, and no amount of logic or evidence will sway them.

    I wonder, however, whether you can provide a citation for this:

    Several black elected officials, as well as communities of color in general, have grown tired of the narrow agenda that has been presented to them by some LGBT organizations.

  • The problem in Maryland was a bunch of spineless Democrats, plain and simple!

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