It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just last week, I saw something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and felt like I was witnessing it for all my ancestors who didn’t live to see a hope fulfilled. But — with a “twoness of being” that DuBois probably didn’t imagine when he coined the term — it was a deeply conflicted moment.
As a Black man, in that moment I felt like more of an American than I ever had before, like a barrier to full citizenship and belonging had been raised. As a gay man with a husband and a family, however, I ended up feeling like less of an American than I ever had before; divorced from the celebrating and even the historic significance of the moment by a barrier to citizenship and belonging that fell more firmly into place even as another one was lifted.
My response to the events of the past week have been informed by that “twoness of being,” and a conflict that demands I prioritize one part of my identity over another. It’s nothing new to Black gay Americans, and we often come down on different sides of that struggle. Lines are drawn, and suddenly I have to be careful of what I say. While I can’t say which side anyone else should come down on, some of the rhetoric of the past week — particularly around race and marriage — is troubling.
I’m struck, in particular by Jasmyne Cannick’s claim that marriage isn’t important for Black gays and lesbians.
Why? Because I don’t see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn’t about to focus my attention on what couldn’t help but feel like a secondary issue.
The first problem with Proposition 8 was the issue of marriage itself. The white gay community never successfully communicated to blacks why it should matter to us above everything else — not just to me as a lesbian but to blacks generally. The way I see it, the white gay community is banging its head against the glass ceiling of a room called equality, believing that a breakthrough on marriage will bestow on it parity with heterosexuals. But the right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no healthcare, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?
Marriage is not a panacea, and no substitute for much needed socioeconomic justice, but marriage equality would help my family, many other Black gay and lesbian families, and our children. In fact, some of the very issues Cannick brought up would be impacted by marriage equality in ways that would benefit Black gay and lesbian couples and families.
The economy is in a downturn, and we all know that when the rest of America catches a cold, our communities get pneumonia. Unfortunately, not having access to the benefits and protections of marriage leaves too many of our families out in the cold. The National Black Justice Coalition’s joint report with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force on Black same-sex households from the 2000 census data shows that Black same-sex couples report less annual median income than Black married opposite-sex couples and White same-sex couples. In difficult times inequality forces them to make do with fewer resources than their heterosexual married counterparts, because they’re ineligible for protections and benefits that help families stay afloat in crises.
Figures are abstract, but represent real families pay a real price for inequality. Mikki Mozelle and Lisa Kebreau, a Black lesbian couple — among those for whom Cannick thinks marriage equality isn’t a priority — who were also one of the plaintiff couples in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit, spent upwards of $6,000 on legal documents to give their family a few protections, and with no guarantee that their documents will be recognized.
In the Maryland county where I live, a $55 application fee gets you a marriage license and the 1,049 benefits and protections that come with it. So heterosexuals pay about $0.05 per protection/benefit. Mozlle and Kebreau (and other Black gay couples) pay hundreds of times more than heterosexuals for less protection and fewer benefits, and often out a less income.
No matter how expensive they are, not having those documents exacts a cost. Ask Takia Foskey and Jo Rabb, a Black lesbian couple — for whom, Cannick says, marriage equality isn’t all that important — and plaintiffs in Maryland’s marriage lawsuit. In 2003, Rabb had emergency gall bladder surgery. Foskey was not allowed to see Rabb, receive any information about her condition, or sit in the family waiting room. Because she was not family.
Foskey and Rabb resemble a lot of other Black same-sex couples, who are 25% more likely to hold municipal jobs, and who are twice as likely to raise children. Rabb, a Baltimore city bus driver, cannot enroll Foskey and her children in the state health plan. So they — including a son with asthma — went without health insurance while Foskey worked part-time. Foskey and her children are ineligible for Rabb’s death benefits, if she should have an accident on her route.
Because of ineligibility for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, neither Rabb or Foskey can take time off and care for the other in the event of an accident or illness, and still have job security. In addition, Rabb could not use medical leave to care for either of Foskey’s biological children. Our families are more likely to include non-biological — adopted or jointly-raised — children, who also pay the price for inequality.
Alicia Heath-Toby and Saundra Toby-Heath, a Black lesbian couple — for whom Cannick has declared marriage equality a low priority — and plaintiffs in the New Jersey Marriage Case, paid two health insurance premiums, because neither could carry the other on her health insurance. They couldn’t get family policy, because, they were not legally a family; twenty years together and grandchildren notwithstanding
Add it all up, and inequality is expensive for black same-sex households. Cannick is right that there are too many Blacks living at or below the poverty line, or living just this side of it. For Black gay families, inequality adds another economic burden.
Inequality exacts a different price when a loved one dies unexpectedly.
Wesley Mercer, a gay Black man, died on September 11, 2001, while helping evacuate the World Trade Center. His partner of 26 years, Bill Randolph, also a Black gay man, struggled to get equal recognition for their relationship. Morgan Stanley, Mercer’s employer, gave him $700 to cover immediate expenses, and later a check for $10,000. Though Mercer supplied half the household income, Randolph does not receive Social Security benefits, workers’ compensation, or Mercer’s 25-year army pension. Only spouse are eligible.
Randolph has spoken up about what he faced as a gay, man losing a partner on 9/11, without the benefits and protections of marriage. I doubt he believes he or any of the Black gay couples who were plaintiffs in the state marriage lawsuits — Corey Davis & Andre LeJune (CA), Mikki Mozelle & Lisa Kebreau (MD), Alvin Williams & Nigel Simon (MD), Takia Foskey & Jo Rabb (MD), Alicia Heath-Toby & Saundra Toby-Heath (NJ) — would agree that that inequality is a “secondary issue.”
Sometimes the cost cannot be calculated in dollars and cents.
This weekend, while we were downtown, we ran into a friend of ours and his son. While the two boys played together, we chatted about the election, and he told us that he had spent election day volunteering, doing voter defense in Virginia.
We’ve known him for almost six years. We celebrated with him and his partner — a Black gay couple — when they adopted their son after several disappointments, and again when they married. Two years ago his husband — a healthy man by all appearances — collapsed at work, and was rushed to the hospital. Our friend arrived at the hospital only to be told that without proof of their relationship he could not see his husband or receive any information about his husband’s condition.
Without knowing what was wrong, or whether his husband would survive until he got back, he drove home, retrieved their legal documents, returned to the hospital and was allowed to see his husband, and had time to say goodbye. His husband died a few days later, of a brain aneurysm, without regaining consciousness.
I told that story to our white, heterosexual neighbor. She told me what happened when her husband was rushed to the hospital. She arrived at the hospital and only needed to say three words: “I’m his wife.” She got three words in response: “Right this way.”
The difference is stark, and while it may be an insignificant difference to Cannick, it isn’t to any of the number 85,000 Black same-sex couples across the country, struggling with the day-to-day economic challenges of inequality that make it difficult to protect and provide for our families.
Anti-gay marriage amendments and ballot initiatives like Proposition 8 only harm Black gay and lesbian famlies, many of whom are already economically disadvantaged. Cannick may think marriage equality is “secondary” to other issues, or can wait until others are addressed. But that also means that thousands of our families will continue to suffer injustice, economic and otherwise, indefinitely and without remedy.
For them, inequality is a daily burden added to the rest: making ends meet, putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads, and simply providing for their families.
For many of our families, equality is not a “luxury,” as Cannick calls it. It is justice.
Marriage isn’t the only solution to these problems, by any means, and it for many it may not be the right solution. It shouldn’t be our only focus or strategy, but neither should marriage be rejected out of hand for everyone.
There are many paths to justice. We each chose ours for different, often deeply personal reasons. Sometimes they weave together in places where we need help and can help one another to keep going. They part, but inevitably cross again. We will meet each other many times on our winding paths to justice. We will need each other again. Let’s not put roadblocks in front of one another.
I won’t ask Cannick to change her priorities. I wish she wouldn’t decide for my family, and other Black gay families, what our priorities are or should be.