Illinois Gay Marriage: Will African Americans Follow Obama and Support It?


The African-American community represents a critical bloc of voters in Illinois blocking the passing of same sex legislation. If Illinois is any indication, the African-American community has not evolved enough on same sex marriage to consider it the civil rights issue of the day.

African-American support for gay and lesbian marriage is growing, but the community is still divided. In Illinois, prominent African-American ministers are speaking out in favor of and against legalizing same sex marriage. The African-American Clergy Coalition represents a group of churches aligned with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago opposing gay marriage. Prominent African-American clergy opposing same gender marriage include Bishop Willie James Campbell, the Jurisdictional Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Byron Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, and Salem Baptist Church of Chicago's pastor and former State Senator James Meeks.

Rev. Richard Tolliver, pastor of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church on the South Side, Rev. Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal minister, Trinity United Church of Christ's Rev. Otis Moss, and Rev. Booker Vance of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in Chicago represent a group of 13 Chicago-area black pastors in favor of same sex marriage.

The divide in Chicago's heavily African-American community is indicative of the divide across the African-American community in general. A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in March 2012 found that only 50% of blacks backed gay marriage. A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2012 also found that the African-American community split, with only 49% supporting same sex marriage. Only 42% of African-Americans in California voted against Proposition 8, the legislation outlawing same sex marriage.

African-American opposition to same gender marriage is rooted in two phenomena; the deep religiosity of much of the African-American community and a legacy of homophobia. The African-American church is the oldest most respected and honored institution in the community and African-Americans remain deeply rooted in faith. As the church goes so goes the African-American community and so far the majority of churches oppose same sex marriage. Similar to the Catholic Church, African-Americans remain committed to their faith despite the fact that the African-American church is "no stranger to sexual repression, homophobia, sexphobia and sexual abuse."

The other issue is African-American homophobia. That fear was fed by a media blitz that inferred that the largest percentage of closeted gay men — "on the down low" – occurred in the African-American community. There are lots of things that feed into the homophobic nature of many African-Americans. Everything from the literal biblical interpretation of homosexuality as a sin, to the inclusion of prison rape experiences adds to the homophobic environment in some African-American communities. Add to that the theory of hyper-masculine aggression found in many impoverished communities and the theory that slavery left a lingering stench of emasculation and psychic damage among African-American men resulting in the promotion of traits associated with hyper-virility among African-American men.

Openly gay CNN news anchor Don Lemon once said, "it's about the worst thing you can be in black culture."

The debate in Illinois is occurring throughout the African-American community Rev. Tolliver said, "this is a matter of equal protection under the law for all citizens. This is not a religious issue." Rev. Vance explained, "it's not a religious issue at all it's a civil rights, human rights issue that we, as black folks in particular, because of our history, should be supportive of." Speaking for the opposition Bishop Campbell emphatically stated, "we love people, period. But there are certain principles we must stand on."

For now, the legislation is held up in the Illinois house. The Senate passed the bill 34-21-2. However the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Greg Harris, lacks the 60 votes needed to pass it in the House. The legislation requires the support of the bloc of 20 African-American House representatives.

There is a long history of divide in the African-American community on gay and lesbian rights. Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington has never received his just rewards as one of the leading figures in the civil rights movement primarily because he was openly homosexual. Many in the community do not equate the struggle for LGBT equality with the civil rights movement. However, the community needs to take the lead from President Obama, Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP, Coretta Scott King, Ben Jealous, Julian Bond and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and come out in support of same sex marriage.