(The Root) — Making good on a promise, Sen.-elect Cory Booker began officiating the marriages of same-sex couples in New Jersey just after midnight this morning — as they first became legally possible, thanks to a court ruling. Later this morning, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that although he continues to oppose same-sex marriage, he would not challenge the ruling. Which means that gay marriage will become a permanent part of New Jersey life.
While images of elected officials marrying gay couples have become a regular presence in media in recent years, images of black elected officials doing so has not. Though the number of high-profile black Americans expressing support for same-sex marriage has skyrocketed recently, with everyone from President Obama to Michael Strahan weighing in with support, it is still not that common to see black elected officials with large black constituencies being vocal proponents of LGBT rights, with some rare exceptions. Civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis was an early proponent of same-sex marriage, drawing comparisons to the African-American battle for equality under the law.
But Booker is the most high-profile, next-generation African-American political leader to take up the cause of LGBT rights. Making Booker's outspokenness on the issue all the more significant is his earlier acknowledgement of having been a homophobic teen. He previously wrote of his past, "Allow me to be more direct, escaping the euphemisms of my past — I hated gays. The disgust and latent hostility I felt toward gays were subcategories of hatred, plain and simple."
But today he now challenges homophobia at every turn, so much so that he sparked a frenzy online for refusing to declare his heterosexuality, saying in an interview, "And people who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful. Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight.' "
A 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that support for same-sex marriage has increased among blacks. In 2011, 36 percent of African Americans said they approved of gay marriage, compared to 44 percent in 2012, lagging slightly behind in the white community, where 49 percent say they approve of legalizing same-sex marriage. But while most polls, including Pew's, show increasing support among younger generations for LGBT rights, there is still a startling level of homophobia, particularly in certain corners of the black community.
Like it or not, hip-hop and professional sports remain two of the most influential pop cultural institutions within the black community, and though both have had some high-profile people come out recently, such as artist Frank Ocean and NBA player Jason Collins, both fields still seem much more likely to welcome a rapper or athlete who says the f-word than one who is happily out. (For the record, the f-word remains rampant in both spheres despite increasing efforts to eradicate it.)
No one should condone or accept homophobic language, bullying or ostracism of any kind. But our community has a complicated history with defining masculinity, often in unhealthy ways and by unhealthy standards. Couple that history with the role that strict biblical interpretation plays among some black Christians, and you have a situation where somehow gay people are deemed bad in certain churches while men with multiple baby-mamas are not. As I see it, that's the reason homophobia seems slower to dissipate among our people than others.
But I believe that will change. The more high-profile black Americans who do not identify as gay make a conscious effort to treat gay Americans with respect and pass that message on to other straight Americans to do the same, homophobia will eventually become a thing of the past.
Cory Booker is doing his part, tweeting today after his first round of weddings, "When we judge, we invite judgment. When we hate, we invite hatred. But when we are kind, we invite kindness & when we love, we invite love."
Hopefully he will inspire others to do their part as well.
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.