Feb 162012
Leroy Swailes, a minister, outside a Senate committee room as he waited to testify at a same-sex marriage hearing last month.

As a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland hurtles toward a vote in the legislature this week, a coalition lobbying for its passage has focused much of its efforts on a group of Democrats who could potentially scuttle its success: African-Americans.

It is the most serious attempt by advocates for same-sex marriage to win over blacks, who have traditionally been skeptical, and whose support is critical for the bill’s passage in this state, where nearly a third of the population is African-American, a far higher share than in the broader population.

The campaign includes videos of well-known African-American Marylanders, including Michael Kenneth Williams, an actor from the television series “The Wire,” and Mo’nique, a Baltimore-born actress; an editorial in The Afro; and conversations in churches and union halls, where most members are black.

The Human Rights Campaign and the Service Employees International Union have sent dozens of workers and volunteers, many of them African-American, across the state to talk about the issue. Particular attention is being paid to Baltimore and Prince George’s County, organizers said, two majority-black areas where skepticism has been strong.

It is uncertain whether the effort will lead to the bill’s passage; a similar bill failed in the House last year without coming to a vote. But it has had one clear effect, that of opening a difficult conversation about homosexuality among one group that has traditionally shied away from talking about it.

“It’s a very sensitive subject in the black community,” said Ezekiel Jackson, a political organizer for the 1199 Service Employees International Union in Maryland, who has been meeting with members, mostly health care workers, to persuade them to support the bill. “The culture is different. Gay people got pushed off into their own circle. Instead of dealing with it, they just lived their lives among like minds, apart.”

Much of the hesitation, black advocates of the bill say, has its roots in the churches, whose influence is strong among many African-Americans. And while the overwhelming majority of black clergy in the state still strongly oppose same-sex marriage — they held a rally here in the state capital last month to make that point — a few young pastors have come out in support.

“This was an issue I knew I could not avoid,” said the Rev. Delman Coates, 39, one of two Baptist preachers who testified in support of the bill in a hearing last week. “Clergy leaders have been organizing against this, and I didn’t want my silence to sound like consent.”

The soul-searching in Maryland on same-sex marriage shows just how delicate the issue can be for Democrats around the country who count on strong African-American support at the polls.

It presents a tricky equation for President Obama, who cannot risk depressing turnout among blacks, as their votes will be critical in what is shaping up to be a closely fought campaign. Mr. Obama, who has in the past opposed same-sex marriage, has said his views are “evolving.” In July, he endorsed a bill to repeal the law that limits the legal definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman.

Among those opposing the bill in Maryland is Pastor Joel Peebles of Jericho City of Praise, a megachurch in Prince George’s County. “The black community is watching with a great deal of concern regarding how our legislators vote on this bill,” he said. “Their decision will be strongly in the mind of the voters when they go to the polls.”

Maryland’s Democrats are sharply divided by race on the issue. A Washington Post poll published on Jan. 30 found that 71 percent of white respondents supported it, while 24 percent did not. Among blacks, 41 percent were supportive, while 53 percent were opposed. African-Americans are an important constituency here: their share of the population — 29 percent — is greater than in many Southern states, including Alabama and South Carolina, according to the Brookings Institution.

In the Maryland House, the bill needs 71 votes to pass. Only two Republicans have pledged their support; the rest are expected to oppose the measure. Of the 98 Democrats in the House, as many as 30 are said to be undecided, a majority of them African-Americans.

Still, advocates are cautiously optimistic. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, proposed the bill and has pushed it energetically, in the fashion of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York.

“There’s been an evolution here in our state on this issue,” he said in an interview. “The wave of opinion on this is pretty unmistakable.”

But resistance runs deep in the faith community. Last year, several traditional black churches formed the Maryland Marriage Alliance, an umbrella group opposed to the bill that includes the Maryland Catholic Conference.

“Households are going to be turned upside down because of this,” said the Rev. Ralph A. Martino, senior pastor at First Church of Christ (Holiness) USA in Washington, who attacked Mr. Coates’s position on a radio show.

Mr. Coates acknowledged that his position was unpopular, but said he was trying to give people a way to accept the bill by presenting it as a matter of rights, not religious doctrine. He said that most in his congregation — about 8,000 people in Prince George’s County — seemed to understand the distinction, and that the loudest opposition had come from other pastors.

“People in the pews are much farther along than those in the pulpit,” he said.

The Rev. Larry Brumfield, a pastor in Baltimore who has a weekly radio show on gay issues that focuses on a black audience, agreed. Still, he said that many churchgoers adopt the views of their pastors, who in traditional black churches in Maryland are still almost entirely opposed to the bill. That makes Mr. Brumfield, an African-American, “feel the need to be extra vocal.”

“It really bothers me how black people can be so insensitive to oppression,” he said. “They use the same arguments that were used against us by the segregationists in the 1950s.”

Whatever the bill’s fate, the process of talking about it has changed something for black people here, supporters say. Mr. Jackson, the union worker, said a colleague had come into his office recently and broken down in tears. Her daughter is gay, the woman said, and they had never spoken of it, choosing instead to pretend it was not there. Soon after, she called her daughter, Mr. Jackson said, and told her she accepted her.

“For the first time, many people who were not able to talk about it are seeing how important it is, and are talking,” said Tawanna P. Gaines, a Democratic lawmaker who supports the bill. “People are saying, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to no longer have to lie about this.’ ”


Maryland Gay Marriage Faces Black Skepticism – NYTimes.com

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