The debate over same-sex marriage has proved a controversial topic among African Americans — a conflict that reflects the myriad and contrasting opinions across the community. Because of an entrenched religious history and struggle for equality, blacks remain sensitive to the needs of those denied basic human rights but extremely conservative in applying a Christian-values litmus test to all moral subject matter.
Broad debates about the future of the nuclear family, and the crisis of fatherhood in the black community, have garnered attention from the pulpit to the dinner table. The debate over gay marriage has presented a unique stumbling block in which our values don't always mirror our aspirations, as well as a challenge to broaden our understanding of the words "family," "love" and "marriage."
African Americans are no strangers to having to redraw the lines. Statistics continue to show that blacks are the least likely of all ethnic groups to marry at all. For generations we have been raised by grandmothers or nurtured by aunts and uncles, and have found ourselves estranged from the mothers who bore us, the fathers we never knew, and sisters and brothers who all had different last names. In some respects, the civil rights movement gave birth to a new kind of freedom — freedom to redefine the meaning of family and empower individuals, not governments, in the quest for love.
It seems only fitting to reference a quote from Mildred Loving, the iconic plaintiff in the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, which made race-based marriage restrictions unconstitutional. Loving, a black woman who fought for the legal validation of her marriage to a white man, stated poignantly that marriage equality for gay couples is "what Loving, and loving, are all about."
Even though New York's marriage law was a legislative, not judicial, decision, the framework that the Supreme Court established to abolish laws written to deny blacks and whites the freedom to intermarry now serves as a moral blueprint in the fight for marriage equality. The underlying question has become, how can the state infringe upon an individual's right to love whom he or she chooses?
New York has finally answered that question.
In a 33-29 vote last Friday, the New York State Senate approved the Marriage Equality Bill last week, leading the way for gay and lesbian couples to get married across the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law just before midnight, meaning that it will take effect in 30 days, allowing for summer weddings with a rainbow flair. The faces of adulation in the streets of New York City reflected the diversity of the nation's cultural capital, with gays and straights of every racial and ethnic hue celebrating the validation that comes with this landmark decision.
Most encouraging is the fact that this came about in a divided legislature sharply divided by partisan lines. The Democratic majority in the New York Assembly led the charge, and the Republican-controlled Senate managed to complete the job in a bipartisan effort that conveys evolving attitudes on the subject.
Sen. Mark Grisanti, a GOP freshman from Buffalo, explained that despite his Catholic upbringing and beliefs, he could not reasonably deny anyone basic rights. Republican Sen. Stephen Saland, who had originally voted against a similar measure in 2009, joined the cause. "While I understand that my vote will disappoint many," he explained, "I also know my vote is a vote of conscience."
There were strong opinions on all sides, and religious fervor clashed with questions of constitutional freedom. The lone dissenting Democratic vote came from Sen. Ruben Diaz, the Pentecostal minister who represents the second-poorest district in the Bronx and has mostly African-American and Hispanic constituents.
Before the vote, Diaz offered his final warning that the legislature's decision would forever alter the institution of marriage. But even Diaz has a complicated and all-too-human perspective on this matter. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times, Diaz revealed that two of his 16 siblings were gay, and he also has a lesbian granddaughter. When asked about them, he explained, "I love them. I love them … they are my family."
The essential compromise that removed the final hurdle to New York's passage of marriage equality involved the conservative sticking point that legal protections be included for religious organizations that don't want their facilities or services to be made available for weddings of same-sex couples. Though many gay-rights organizations opposed these measures, the very issue conveys an underlying truth that marriage is, in fact, a civil and social institution, and therefore should not be limited or manipulated by religious ideology.
It is serendipitous that the final vote came the night before the annual Gay Pride celebrations were to take place in New York City. Crowds gathered outside Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn — the landmark famously known as the birthplace of the gay-rights movement after a violent revolt against police on June 28, 1969.
Inspired by the African-American civil rights movement, the Stonewall riots can best be described as the Rosa Parks moment for gay rights. It was a day when young gay men and women decided that they had had enough. Today Gay Pride events are held throughout the world in June to mark the occasion.
With the passage of the Marriage Equality Bill, New York has proved once again that Lady Liberty is alive and well, her light shining bright. It is fitting that the rainbow flag serves as the definitive symbol for the gay-rights movement, embracing both the diversity and uniformity at the heart of the evolved notion of what it means to be loved and what it means to be family.
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 and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.