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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 02:15 P.M.

Is same-sex marriage a civil-rights issue?

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

David Strong
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David Strong met his soul mate at a business conference in Minneapolis 10 years ago and moved to Seattle months later so the two could make a home here together.

Reggie Witherspoon Sr. found the love of his life in his Sunday-school class — a childhood friend-turned-sweetheart with whom he later settled down to raise a family.

Witherspoon and Strong are black men who came of age in the aftermath of the U.S. civil-rights movement.

Both are educated and middle class.

Reggie Witherspoon Sr.
And both are Christian pastors with strong beliefs in the teachings of the Bible.

But on the contentious issue of gay marriage, they stand on opposite sides of a new debate being heard from the pulpits of black churches to dining-room tables in black homes, where the reality of hatred, exclusion and discrimination has historically been put on trial: Is gay marriage a civil-rights issue?

Witherspoon, 45 and a father of four, says no. "Gay marriage is not a civil-rights issue at all, but a moral issue," he said.

"There are so many things that gays can do that my grandmother couldn't do," he said. "They can vote, they can live where they want to live. I don't see anyone siccing dogs on gays like they did to African Americans in the 60s. It's radically different. And to suggest that it isn't is an injustice to the civil-rights era."

Strong, 42, is gay and believes that while the rights sought by same-sex couples may not perfectly mirror those hard-earned by his forebears, one can't ignore the similarities. "The denial of human dignity, the right to live as you are ... those are the parallels to civil rights," he said.

"What disappoints me is that I feel (blacks) are being co-opted by the agendas of folks who are really not on our side. The Christian right is fundamentally against affirmative action, is against most things that would benefit black folks and gay people."

Advocates of gay marriage have borrowed liberally from the civil-rights movement. "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, is often heard at gay-marriage rallies.

And when Massachusetts' highest court ruled that gays have a right to marry, it cited the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated public schools.

"I understand from a legal perspective why they'd borrow from the civil-rights movement," Peter Nicolas, professor of law at the University of Washington, said of the gay-rights effort.

"There are similarities. It's accurate to say that gays have suffered in terms of employment — both public and private. And there are court decisions, including those legalizing interracial marriage, from which you could draw appropriate analogies."

But the comparisons don't sit well with some blacks — particularly those in the ministry who have used their pulpits to denounce bigotry and now endorse efforts to derail the gay-marriage movement.

"We are simply saying that the laws of the land have described what marriage should look like," said Witherspoon, pastor of Mount Calvary Christian Center in Seattle's Central Area. "And no King County executive, no city mayor, no judge has a right to unilaterally change that law."

Witherspoon supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, settling the matter once and for all: "It needs to be etched in stone, for the survival of humankind, for the sake of moral rights," he said.

Flora Wilson Bridges, an assistant professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University, sees a kind of hypocrisy in that.

"If the black community goes around proclaiming that we should be free as a people but we can't see that for people other than ourselves, it makes our claim for freedom less strong," she said.

"It becomes a narrow kind of selfish point of view. If we understand it for ourselves, we must understand it for others."

Some say that many blacks, particularly older blacks, have an unspoken concern that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow negates the discrimination blacks have endured.

But "there are no shades of civil rights, no shades of equality," said James Kelly, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. "It's not about who suffered the most. It's about equality for all."

Attitudes

A recent national Pew Forum poll shows that blacks' attitudes toward gay marriage have hardly budged in nearly a decade.

In 1996, 65 percent of blacks were opposed to gay marriage, compared with 64 percent now. At the same time, opposition to same-sex marriage among Latinos has declined. White opposition to gay marriage also has declined for every group other than evangelicals.

Some blacks worry about whether gay marriages might impact the already-fractured black family, where nearly 70 percent of children do not live in traditional two-parent households, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. (The overall percentage of U.S. children in two-married-parent families in 2003 was 69 percent.) One out of every two black children is born out of wedlock to a single mother, the census data also show. (One out of every three births in the U.S. is out of wedlock.)

"We don't need anything accelerating those statistics," said Willis Papillion, a Silverdale, Kitsap County, resident who bristles at the idea of gay marriage as a civil right. "Two people of the same sex are to me like one parent.

"Children are growing up needing and expecting a mother and a father — not two moms or two dads," he said. "That's the challenge for the black community."

That argument is lost on many who say problems within the black family will exist whether gays are allowed to marry or not.

"Many things are conspiring to destroy the black family: out-of-wedlock births, the drug epidemic," said Strong, who is executive director of Bike Works, a nonprofit group that helps young people improve their lives. "Divorce is destructive to the community. Often as gay and lesbian uncles and aunts, we're stepping in to repair some of the damage."

Product of environment

Witherspoon and his church have taken a lead in helping to reduce crime and improve conditions in Seattle's Central Area. He has led marches and organized concerts and cookouts to reach out to troubled youths in the neighborhood.

Ten years ago, his brother was killed just around the corner from his church.

Witherspoon said he doesn't believe in discrimination against anyone. He has family members who are gay, including a first cousin who died of AIDS. He believes gays are a product of their environment, much like drug addicts.

"Thirty years ago, this was nowhere near the issue it is today," he said. "I think because it's become so accepted by so much of society, we are seeing more homosexuals than we've ever seen in our lifetime."

Knew he was different

Strong, pastor of Community Church of Joy, a member of the International Council of Community Churches, grew up in Cairo, Ill., a small town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the son of a Pentecostal minister.

"By the time I was six, I knew I was different," he said. "I just didn't have a name for it."

He didn't come out to his family until nine years ago. By then, he said, they already knew.

He said he has welcomed to his church many gays who have felt ostracized by mainstream black churches. He feels lucky his own family knows of his sexual orientation and has accepted him and his partner.

"We're probably unique among African-American families because of the acceptance," Strong said. "I don't have to go home and lie and pretend that I don't have someone in my life."

He worries that African Americans tend to forget about gays such as writer James Baldwin, Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and poet Langston Hughes, who made major contributions to the black community.

He and his partner have talked about getting married, but their views on the matter differ.

"For me, it's a deeply religious kind of experience; it doesn't appeal to him on that level," he said. "He'd just as soon throw a party and invite a bunch of friends."

Both sides of debate

In the weeks since President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, black religious and secular leaders nationwide have lined up on either side of the debate.

Last month, a group of black ministers from Atlanta outlined its objection to gay marriage, pressing for a state constitutional ban in Georgia. "This is neither a hate nor a fear issue," their statement said. "People are free in our nation to pursue relationships as they choose. To redefine marriage, however, to suit the preference of those choosing alternative lifestyles, is wrong."

The NAACP has not taken an official position on gay marriage, although its chairman, Julian Bond, has called Bush's proposed amendment an attempt "to write bigotry into the constitution."

And while the Rev. Jesse Jackson has dismissed gay rights as civil rights, saying gays were never considered three-fifths a person as blacks were, Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., has said the constitution should be used to expand, not restrict, freedom.

Advocates for gay marriage say the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed marriage as a civil right when it struck down bans on interracial marriage. That decision declared marriage "one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival."

But Murphy Lucas, a 70-year-old who was having lunch at the Central Area Senior Center on a recent afternoon, is having none of it. Civil rights, she said, "is about an individual being treated as a human being. It has nothing to do with homosexuality."

She said she thinks the government needs to stay out of the debate and leave the issue of marriage to the church: "It's a God issue," she said.

But across the dining hall from her, Curtis Walker, 67, disagreed vehemently.

Walker thinks gays should be granted the same rights as everyone else — including the right to marry. "We suffer from discrimination ourselves," he said. "I'd think we'd be the last ones to promote discrimination against anyone else."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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