Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Marriage Is Postponed

I was deeply saddened, but to be honest, not surprised, that the bill in my home state of Maryland that would afford my partner and me, and all same-sex loving couples in my state, the ability to marry, was referred back to Committee on Friday, March 11, by our state's House of Quivering Delegates. That action (or inaction) effectively killed it for the year.

There were many articles about this decision that appeared in various media outlets and political blogs. I also read many messages about it from some Delegates who represent areas of the county where my partner and I have our home.

The only good news, if there is good news, is that the bill was referred back to Committee, so it can come up again in the House next year and not have to be re-introduced and go through our State Senate again. Just because it passed in our Senate this year doesn't mean that it will next year. Elected leaders change minds sometimes.

After reading through the wailing and the political stuff, what became apparent is that the reason why the bill didn't pass our House of Delegates was last-minute pressure put on Delegates who serve a county south of us, whose population is predominantly African American, many of whom belong to organized megachurches. While this bill was never a religious matter -- in fact it's title and content called it, "Religious Freedom and Protection" because it clearly stated that a religious institution did not have to conduct same-sex marriages if it didn't want to -- nonetheless, the members of what the media describes as "Black Megachurches" became active on the matter when our State Senate passed the bill. The church members took that action as a "wake-up call" and began calling and visiting their Delegates, telling them to oppose the bill.

This puzzled me, but after looking into it, and with the help of a good friend who is much more knowledgable on these issues than I am, I learned what happened and why it happened. My friend wrote me an explanative piece which I would like to feature, below, as a guest blog post. Read on.

I had very high hopes for a positive outcome and it saddens me that once again our rights have been denied in the name of Christianity. I have to remember that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing struggle. Thanks for thinking of me as you wrestle with this matter. As one who grew up in the black church and with family members who have been very active and have led churches, I think I can shed some light. There are several points that come to mind.

By and large, black churches are represented by evangelical denominations that focus on a literal and conservative interpretation of the Bible and believe the words written there were not influenced by those societies and are timeless.

Historically, Baptist and Methodist denominations have been most influential in establishing black churches throughout the country from the era of slavery through Jim Crow. Maryland, Virginia, and other southern states with large slave populations were fertile grounds to these denominations. In my experience, these dominations believe in a literal Biblical interpretation. Each will point to the clobber passages, the verses about Sodom and Gamorrah, and Paul's writing in the New Testament to say that homosexuality is a sin. Combine that with the evangelical position that to be a true Christian you must denounce sin and ask God to change your sinful nature, you have a recipe that doesn't allow room for the consideration that homosexuality is another variant of human sexuality, and no more or less sinful than heterosexuality. Once you are baptized, by full immersion, you are a "new creature" who is expected to reject your sinful past and embraces everything holy.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, it used to be common practice for churches to require young women who became pregnant out of wedlock, to come to the front of the church to apologize to the congregation for ther sin. In fact, about 10 years ago a cousin my age did just that at the church her father pastored in Tennessee. It was only after she did so that she was considered to be fully repentant of that sin. I'm sure my uncle took that memory to his grave feeling that he could rest easily. So, it's not that homosexuality is a greater sin than any other, it's just that, like pregnancy out of wedlock, it's readily observable, easily identified, and in the mind of the devoute, the result of willful behavior.

I give that example to show the conservative nature of many black churches in rigid belief systems that tend to make no allowance for any position that does not fit squarely into what a literal interpretation of the Bible affords. It's not just their belief that we as gays are sinners, but that we're unrepentant sinners that forces them to fight so diligently against our rights. They truly believe that if we just stop the sinning, there will be no need for special rights and considerations.

This rigid belief system makes them very easy prey to the exploitations of organizations like NOM, Focus on the Family, and others like them. Because, at the end of the day, this only became an issue for the black churches to become involved in at 11th hour. This is not a platform that black churches routinely focus upon. Employment, education, and adequate health care in the black community are the issues of greatest interest and need. The megachurches no doubt were willing to enter the fray given their view of the role of civil government. According to the website of Metropolitan Baptist Church, a black megachurch in that area, "We believe that civil government is of divine appointment, for the interests and good order of human society (1); and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored and obeyed (2); except only in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ (3) who is the only Lord of the conscience, and the Prince of the kings of the earth (4)." I'm sure the anti-gay organizations played upon this to elicit their support.

What LGBT organizations have to learn is that marriage equality will never be seen by these types of black churches as a civil rights issue until they can demonstrate that black LGBT families suffer disproportionately when these rights are not preserved.

Marriage says to my employer that my spouse is covered by my health benefits with no questions asked. Even a progressive employer might provide benefits for my partner, but as you know, they're taxed. That represents less money for basic necessities for your family. Couple that with the fact that black households typically earn less than white households, you begin to demonstrate the unfairness that not having marriage equality produces.

I took a look at the website of your state's LGBT-serving organization and my suspicions were confirmed. They suffer from a lack of diversity that make them appear to be an organization interested only in the rights of middle and upper middle class white gays and lesbians -- a population that's very foreign to the black church community. So, at first glance, gay marriage is not a issue of concern for the black community.

The role of the black megachurches in Maryland can be seen as comparable to the Jerry Falwell Christian Right of the Reagan era. The Maryland Delegates were no fools in not ignoring their voices. Megachurches have million dollar budgets and the loyal financial support of thousands of congregants. The black church teaches the principle of tithing. So, devout members regardless of income, willingly offer 10 percent of earnings each Sunday morning. The message to a Delegate is that he can either listen to this voice, or be replaced in the next election by someone who will. Harry Jackson has said as much in a recent statement.

So, where does this leave us? Will the black church move to a more inclusive stance? It's doubtful as long as it holds steadfastly to its evangelical stance. I wrote to you earlier this year that I have become an Episcopalian. In addition to being a gay affirming and welcoming denomination, for the most part, the church's history of facing and working through its race, LGBT, and gender issues is very appealing to me. There will be hope for black churches when they go the same exercise and realize that welcoming those who only look, think, and behave like you isn't what you've been called upon to do. Many seem to have forgotten that those Jesus associated with were those on the fringes of society...tax collectors, lepers, non-Jews, and women. And those he had the harshest lessons for were the religious.

[BHD back again]: I should point out that it is not "all" Black churches or clergy in my state who oppose same-sex marriage. Several brave clergy members representing those churches stood up to be counted and made impassioned pleas on behalf of those of us who are gay. However, there were not enough of them, and the majority (closed-minded) opinion won the day.

I appreciate my friend's knowledge and insights which help me to understand what needs to be done next year. The battle ain't over by a long shot, and some day, I will stand in a civil proceeding in my state and look my partner in the eye, and say, "I Do."

Life is short: let us marry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, bro, sorry to delay in replying to this, but I've been away tending to business.

Thank your friend for providing such insightful commentary. I was wondering what was going on in the minds of some of those legislators.

In my mind, what bothered me is that many of the delegates promised to support same-sex marriage because they thought that it would not pass the state senate. They took the cowardly way out to promise to support it when they thought that they would not actually have to vote on the measure because they thought it would fail in the other chamber. When presented with the real possibility to consider it, some changed their stated position against what they promised. Typical politicians -- and that's what they are as pejorative as the noun has become.

I am reading about it even over here in Paris about how several of them flip-flopped their positions and have angered -- strongly angered -- previous supporters. Especially that one delegate where you live who told you face-to-face that he would support your ability to marry your partner, yet changed his position. I can understand why you are angry and why you and your partner will never vote for that bozo again. (I figure also that you will work for his defeat and make sure he only serves one term.)

Believe me, brother, this situation angers me, too, because no one deserves to be lied to like that. I want you and your partner to be able to enjoy what my wife and I enjoy: a state-recognized relationship with the rights that pertain to it.

I love you, always. Keep your chin up. See you in a month.

Ore e sempre,