When I watched President Obama speaking to ABC's Robin Roberts about his position on same-sex marriage, I didn't think about it being another moment in history so much as I thought of another historic figure: Bayard Rustin.
Rustin, who died in 1987, is remembered as the principal organizer of the March on Washington in 1963. As one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest lieutenants, he was one of the primary architects of the civil rights movement, even said to have introduced King to Gandhi's nonviolent-protest philosophies.
But he was also openly gay at a time when the very concept was largely unmentionable. It was all he could do to pursue human rights for African Americans who suffered oppressive discrimination in America, let alone ask for the same rights for people who loved the same gender.
The reaction of the black body politic of the time to men like Rustin, despite what he stood for, wasn't necessarily tarring and feathering, or even outing him. (There were, however, instances where he had to take less-public positions in various campaigns.) Instead, for some black folks of the civil rights years, guided and influenced by the church, there was a de facto "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
For them, being gay was defined biblically as sin, an abomination. So the best response often was just to shut up about it. Listen to the preacher as he railed against homosexuality (even if he was in the closet himself), and hide behind a clergy-sanctioned veil of secrecy.
But this cultural behavior did not benefit anyone but authors and publishing houses (see J.L. King), because that attitude only served to spawn closeted gay men and women living double lives, the so-called down-low. Eventually it made us afraid to talk about HIV/AIDS, which so far has killed 240,627 blacks in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest figures.
Enter President Obama. Whether he was forced to say something by Vice President Joe Biden's pronouncement supporting same-sex marriage, whether it was a political ploy or whether he really did the soul-searching he spoke about to come to the conclusion that gay people should be able to marry, his speaking out placed the issue squarely in the faces of African Americans, and it is making us address this whole thing.
This is because African Americans — 96 percent of whom supported President Obama in the 2008 election, but 41 percent of whom are against same-sex marriage — now seem to be presented with a decision: Either continue to support the president and find a way to get past this political issue, or continue to listen to people in our communities, in our churches and in our families who remain focused on gay people as if they were some major ailment for the black community.
Will black Christian voters stick with President Obama, trusting him to steward the country through four more years, as the sluggish but sure economic recovery hits its stride and as the wars that have turned the world's view of America largely negative start to subside? Or will they decide that President Obama has betrayed their religious instruction — something they've been taught most of their lives about homosexuality — and either stay home on Election Day or vote for his presumptive opponent, Mitt Romney? The GOP front-runner has maintained that marriage should be exclusive to people of the opposite sex, and may well do the bidding of what could turn into a right-wing, Republican-controlled Congress.
I can break it down for you. Black people have much, much bigger fish to fry than what two adults do in their own private time or how they choose to spend their lives. Up to 10 percent of young blacks drop out of high school, rendering them largely unable to take advantage of a skilled-worker- and technology-oriented U.S. job market. Meanwhile, black males have a 1-in-3 chance of doing prison time at some point during their lives.
At the same time, we have disproportionately high numbers in far too many negative health statistics, ranging from diabetes to HIV/AIDS to heart disease to gunshots (pdf), which remain the leading cause of death among black adolescents.
So after all this, are we willing to let what people do in their bedrooms influence what we do at the polls? Whatever issue we may have concerning homosexuality is something for us to get over. We should focus instead on the healing that our communities desperately need.
Preventing gay people from getting married is not going to keep a kid in school. It is not going to stop people from using emergency rooms as clinics. It is not going to prevent two young rivals from shooting each other over a dirty look.
President Obama, in essence, has sent this message to African Americans. We can devote our energies to what churches have been preaching about same-sex marriage, or we can focus on solutions. I think Bayard Rustin would partner with Martin Luther King on the solutions part. But that's what they would have done 50 years ago. The choice today is yours.
Madison Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-writer and Web journalist. Follow him on Twitter.