Gay, Black, Married and Still Unequal

The Supreme Court's contradictory rulings on voting rights and gay marriage prove there's still work to do.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

Obama has moved forward with implementing the bureaucratic changes necessary to ensure equitable treatment of same-sex couples, while remaining silent on the fact that most states still consider it illegal. The president went so far as to distinguish the court’s ruling on “civil marriage” from traditional religious interpretations of marriage. This is respectful, of course, but also reveals how religion and prejudice still complicate the debate over equal rights for gay people — even among supposedly liberal constituencies.

President Obama’s home state of Illinois is a perfect example. A bill protecting the rights of gay couples to marry was recently defeated in the state Legislature, in large part because of a bitter split among members of the Black Caucus — many of whom were encouraged by constituent church and faith leaders to block the bill.

Aisha Moodie-Mills is an adviser on LGBT policy issues at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. Moodie-Mills, who legally married her wife, Danielle, in 2010, is a staunch advocate for marriage equality in particular and minority rights in general. Speaking exclusively to The Root, Moodie-Mills explained that while marriage is a critical step toward equality for LGBT people, it is just one step. “People of color and youth certainly need more than this,” she said. “We must address the high rates of workplace discrimination, hate crimes, bullying and health and wellness disparities.”

Moodie-Mills addressed the Supreme Court’s lopsided treatment of civil rights vis-à-vis the ruling on voting rights, saying, “The court’s subsequent gutting of the Voting Rights Act may have, in fact, stalled progress towards LGBT rights, particularly in the South, given that black and brown voters are more likely to elect pro-gay candidates and support pro-equality measures, beyond marriage.”

Her insights reflect the work yet to be done and the kind of coalition necessary to make it happen. At the heart of both Supreme Court rulings is a validation of “states’ rights” — a term that has often been manipulated by those opposed to civil rights for African Americans as a way to justify discrimination at the state level. It is this kind of legalized discrimination that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to prevent and which could thrive again in light of the court’s dismantling of Section 4.

Likewise, a state-by-state approach to gay marriage forces democratic freedoms to remain hostage to bigotry. A gay couple married in New York could lose some or all of their benefits and protections if they choose to move to New Jersey, which doesn’t allow same-sex marriage. A lesbian couple married in Boston could suffer a similar fate if they retire to Florida.

It is “separate and unequal” redux. And as the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it does so slowly — with many steps backward before progressing ever so slightly. It seems that much more must be done to emancipate minds and reveal the subtle nuances of racism and discrimination that continue to plague public policy and judicial review.

Until African Americans’ right to vote is no longer a matter that requires “reauthorization” by Congress, and gay and lesbian couples can be married from the Mississippi Delta to the plains of Nebraska, how can any of us ever truly be free?

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.