There are few institutions in the world more popular than marriage. After all, marriage is one of the few institutions that is common to every culture, race and religion, transcending borders and governments.
For sure, marriage comes in various configurations. The role of women in marriage is certainly diverse, not just in different parts of the world but over time as well. So too, the role of religion and the influence of the church have changed over time and continue to be a topic of hot debate.
In today’s world of secular governments in democratic states the state plays a central part in defining marriage. Yet large numbers of Americans still solemnize these intimate relationships in churches, synagogues and mosques. Marriage is one of the few places in our nation’s culture that the lines between religion and civil society have become so blurred as to be almost undecipherable to the casual observer.
Nowhere is this blurring of lines more problematic than in the debate over marriage between same-sex partners. This appears to be particularly true for many African Americans.
In my travels, the most frequent argument offered against ending discrimination in marriage is that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Of course, my organization points out that what marriage equality advocates are seeking is civil, not religious, recognition; that some religious denominations solemnize same-sex relationships and that the separation of church and state will ensure that no religious denomination will be forced to marry anyone they choose not to.
“If all you are asking for is civil recognition, then just call it civil unions,” is the usual answer.
Thus goes the anything-but-marriage rationale of the so-called progressive crowd.
But black folk should oppose weakening the institution of marriage with what Jonathan Rauch calls “marriage lite.” Creating alternatives to marriage only weakens the institution itself and we can ill afford to weaken an institution that is already on the ropes but yet so important to the survival of all communities.
In the 1950s, after at least 70 years of rough parity, the African-American marriage rate began to lag behind the white rate. By 1998, the percentage of currently married white women had dropped by 13 percent, but the drop among African-American women was between 36 and 44 percent. The declines in males were parallel, 12 percent for white men, 36 percent for African-American men.
While I will not argue a cause-and-effect here, there are some worthwhile facts to discuss about the impact this decline in marriage among African Americans may be having on black communities.
First, research suggests that children who grow up in healthy, married, two-parent families do better on a host of outcomes than those youngsters who do not. Further, many social problems affecting children, families and communities could be prevented if more children grew up in healthy, married families.
While the overall rate for single-parent households in America has increased for all children, it is especially prevalent among African Americans. Between 1960 and 1995, the number of African-American children living with two married parents dropped from 75 percent to 33 percent. At this moment, 69 percent of African-American births are to single mothers as compared to 33 percent nationally. For the record, many children grow up in loving single parent households—the question for us as a society is should we have policies that promote and protect marriage and all healthy two-parent families
A second reason to support marriage is that married couples seem to build more wealth, on average, than singles or cohabitating couples, thus decreasing the likelihood that their children will grow up in poverty.
So what, you may ask, does this have to do with marriage between black same-sex partners?
According to the 2000 Census, there are almost 85,000 black, same-sex couples in the U.S., who are more likely than their white counterparts to be raising children. If two-parent households are the ideal for raising children, then these black, same-sex families must be offered the protections and assurances of marriage.
Moreover, one measure of wealth is homeownership. Black, same-sex couples are less likely to own their own home than white, same-sex couples or black, married couples. In fact, 52 percent of black same-sex couples report home ownership, compared to 71 percent of white, same sex couples. Here, too, as an advocate for black economic advancement, I support policies that give the largest number of African Americans a fighting chance at obtaining wealth and economic security. In this case, same-sex, black couples may well increase their wealth and protect their income for their families but only if they have access to marriage.
The list of practical reasons for supporting an end to discrimination in marriage is long. The debate over whether or not marriage is a beneficial social institution is one of degrees. In the final analysis, the most potent reason to support marriage for gay and lesbian couples is a matter of simple fairness.
The need for intimate relationships and connectedness is a universal human pursuit. The pledge to love honor, and respect another individual is unique and laudable. The ability to protect and care for the person you choose to love is priceless and a gift from God. Fairness would dictate that society not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
African Americans, who have a long history of suffering and struggle caused by those who ignored this central moral imperative, are uniquely positioned to call for equality for those who so rightfully deserve it, in this case same-sex couples seeking to marry.
The writer is the executive director and chief executive officer for the National Black Justice Coalition, a black, gay, civil rights organization. He also co-published a report, “Black Same-Sex Households in the United States” with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.