The Black Gay-Straight Alliance

Amid news stories about anti-gay pastors, the Rev. Delman Coates tells why he supports marriage equality.

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The Rev. Delman Coates and a parishioner at Mount Ennon Baptist Church
(The Washington Post/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- President Obama's evolution on same-sex marriage has inspired a new generation of African-American LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists. And the surprise is that many of them are straight and Christian.

Last month the National Black Justice Coalition sponsored its third annual Out on the Hill summit, which brought together a strong group of African-American leaders, activists and media professionals -- all committed to NBJC's mission of empowering black LGBT Americans and helping to eradicate both homophobia and racism. White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and the Rev. Delman Coates of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., were among the many prominent figures who lent their solidarity.

"It's extremely important to have straight allies, but especially faith leaders who believe in our cause," said Kimberley McLeod, NBJC's communications director. "The more people see important voices in their own communities speaking out in favor of gay rights and marriage equality, they realize it's OK for them to evolve -- just like President Obama did."

McLeod's honest approach unveils the conundrum at the heart of what many African Americans still struggle with: the full embrace of gay rights as civil rights. The conventional wisdom among the political chattering classes is that the black community is deeply religious and socially conservative -- if not openly homophobic. The marriage-equality endorsements of high-profile religious leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Otis Moss of Chicago and Coates, all of whom support the gay-marriage ballot initiative in Coates' home state of Maryland, have proved conventional wisdom wrong.

Yet a small but vocal group of black clergy have responded negatively to their fellow pastors, going so far as to call them hypocrites for failing to abide by strict interpretations of biblical texts. Some ministers who had supported President Obama's bid in 2008 are now expressing opposition to his progressive view on marriage equality.

Polls show that these maneuvers have done little to erode Obama's support among his most loyal voting base in the black community, but the work of challenging homophobia among African Americans remains a worthy cause.

The NBJC summit, held in Washington, D.C., the same week as the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, also included an appearance by John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In a wonderfully progressive twist of fate, Wilson has partnered with the NBJC to implement an LGBT Equality Initiative on the campuses of HBCUs across the country. The aim is to educate young African Americans about the dangers of homophobia and to encourage solidarity in the quest for equality.

The Root spoke with Coates -- a 2012 The Root 100 honoree -- about his involvement in the push for marriage equality. He addressed the challenges of confronting old attitudes and religious hypocrisy and explained why Christian ideals support love beyond gender.

The Root: Why have you become such a vocal supporter of marriage equality for gay Americans?

Delman Coates: I believe that the government should not co-sign discrimination, whether that's against blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, women, gays or anyone else. And African Americans in particular -- given our history -- are the last people who should be on the side of discrimination. What I like about being American is that we live in a pluralistic society. We have freedom of and freedom from religion.

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