Wed Aug 23, 7:11 AM ET
Same-sex marriage is surely a civil right
By Sheryl McCarthy
As the debate rages over whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, I'm disappointed whenever I hear other African-Americans say, "No, they shouldn't."
We're more opposed to same-sex marriage than whites are, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which found that 65% of African-Americans are against it compared with 53% of whites.
I understand the reasons.
African-Americans are overwhelmingly Christians, and many of us believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Beyond that, even suggesting that the struggle of gays and lesbians for the right to marry is similar to our own civil rights struggle is often perceived as an insult.
I've heard the most racially militant blacks argue that the gay struggle is different from our own because we have no choice about being black while gays can choose whom they want to sleep with. This reasoning persists despite growing scientific evidence that people's sexual orientation is innate and that they don't choose it any more than they choose their sex or race.
Some African-Americans also argue that gays and lesbians were never slaves or victims of a system designed to keep them in their place, and that while homosexuals have the option of keeping their sex lives private, few blacks can hide their race.
A comparable struggle
Even some civil rights leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, have tried to put distance between the black and gay struggles. And black ministers, among them the Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, have led protests to fight efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.
The fight for gay rights is like our civil rights struggle, however, and it's hypocritical for groups that have had to fight long and hard to win their own constitutional rights to turn around and try to deny them to the next group. We're seeing this in the descendants of immigrant groups that were despised and vilified during their early days in this country, and that now want to deny recent immigrants the means to become lawful citizens.
This hypocrisy was apparent to me as I was growing up in a black Baptist church. I routinely heard ministers condemn gays from the pulpit, even though half the male choir members, the choir director, the flower arranger and plenty of other male church members were obviously gay. The church would have had difficulty functioning without them.
Because it's difficult enough to be black in this country, I know that black communities would prefer not to have to deal with the added stigma society attaches to homosexuals, and the obvious link to HIV and AIDS. And with stable heterosexual marriages rare enough in black communities, some African-Americans think that encouraging same-sex marriage would only complicate the situation.
Nonetheless, the main argument used against same-sex marriage is that the Bible says it's wrong. We point to the Scriptures, to the story of Adam and Eve (and the absence of Adam and Steve), to the retribution inflicted on the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, and to depictions of male-on-male sex in Leviticus and Romans as being so perverse that it warranted death.
I won't attempt to argue with the Scriptures, other than to say they reflect the mores and biases of the times they were written. And just as there are Scriptures ordering slaves to obey their masters, cautioning women to be silent in church and submissive at home, and applauding the persecution of the Jews because they killed Jesus, none of these positions is argued by enlightened people today.
I won't dismiss the beliefs of blacks who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but I'd caution them that morality has often been used as a cloak for old-fashioned bigotry, fear and discomfort with people and behaviors that are different.
But what about religion? How can African-Americans reconcile religious beliefs with acceptance of same-sex marriage?
I asked the Rev. James Forbes, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York. Forbes is black, and his diverse congregation has gone on record as supporting same-sex marriages - and all other families that are based on the principles of love and justice. Forbes says acceptance might increase as African-Americans become more aware of scientific evidence that suggests sexual orientation is innate - and not a choice.
As for the Bible's apparent disapproval of homosexual behavior, Forbes says it's a matter of how one reads the Bible.
"What is clear," he says, "is that the Bible says the highest principle is love. Once it becomes clear that our sexual orientation is more or less a given, I think black people will begin to recognize that including all in the family of God is a more righteous principle than the abhorrence of gay love."
I see marriage as a civil right, and no group's religious beliefs should be allowed to deny the rights of others. And because blacks have suffered from bigotry and injustice that were cloaked by religion and morality, we should avoid doing the same thing to others.
Sheryl McCarthy is a freelance writer and columnist for Newsday on Long Island, N.Y.She's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.