This week, the state of Maine became the fifth in the United States to allow marriage protections for same-sex couples. The edict, signed into law by Governor John E. Baldacci, adds to the growing list of states–Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and Vermont–that have decided that gays have the right to marry one another. It also follows on the heels of the Washington City Council's 12-1 vote to recognize marriages performed in these states. DC Mayor Adrian Fenty says he'll sign the law as soon as possible.
On the same day as the historic legal event, former Washington DC mayor Marion Barry—the lone holdout vote on the Council—and a gaggle of mostly African American district residents declared war on gay marriage, in protests that filled the street outside the John A. Wilson administrative building in Washington. (Watch video here.)
Local supporters of gay marriage are understandably cautious about pushing for an outright bill allowing to marriage in the district. "I don't think we should assume anything," Michael Crawford, the executive director of D.C. for Marriage, told the WASHINGTON POST. But the response from elements of DC's black community has been disappointingly reactionary and lacking in empathy. It's jarring, indeed, to see black protesters agitating for the abridgment of rights they, too, were once denied.
Yet judging from the crowd's passion, one would have thought that the the District had repealed the Voting Rights Act. From the POST:
"All hell is going to break lose," Barry said while speaking to reporters. "We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this."
Berry, who might be overstating the case—the crowd looked scattered, if impassioned, and six other blacks on the Council backed gay marriage recognition—should be ashamed of what he said next:
"What you've got to understand is 98 percent of my constituents are black and we don't have but a handful of openly gay residents," Barry said. "Secondly, at least 70 percent of those who express themselves to me about this are opposed to anything dealing with this issue. The ministers think it is a sin, and I have to be sensitive to that."
Is Barry really arguing with a straight face that minorities don't deserve rights? What was that that Martin Luther King said about "injustice anywhere"? I am pretty sure Barry's former colleagues from SNCC and from the Civil Rights Era, or perhaps his mother, would slap him upside the head for that assertion. Sure, blacks may be less gay than other ethnic groups, but it's rather as they say about the right to choose an abortion: If you don't like it, don't have one.
The president has been noticably absent from this skirmish—perhaps intentionally. (Sheryl Stolberg at the NEW YORK TIMES has the tick-tock of Obama's dodging here.) But these declarations lend credence to the idea that blacks hate gays, or even aided the passage of anti-gay Proposition 8 in California (see Kai Wright for more)—an unfortunate outcome.
Of course, the bigotry of Barry, who had previously been an open supporter of gay rights, seems motivated by pure opportunism. The ministers he endowed with such infinite wisdom (is smoking crack a sin?) are those who have been the GOTV dons of Barry's Ward 8. And, let the record show that another group of mixed-race clergy held a peaceful, religious rally in *favor* of gay rights at the Wilson building on Tuesday.
Moreover, I think this incident underscores the problem of the crude, race-based local politicking that can stand in the way of progressive change. While Barry may feel comfortable playing the ugly games that come along with gerrymandered districts and de facto segregation, it's obvious that his ugly screed against gay marriage is not the same as advocating for his district's economic, health or environmental needs. Using shared blackness as a cudgel is not proactive, it is reactive, and causes heartbreak every day. And should be decried as such.
UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has more outrage on his blog.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.