Ezekiel Jackson is black and his wife is white. As Jackson campaigns to legalize gay marriage in Maryland, he likens the plight of same-sex couples to that of interracial couples, who were banned from marrying in the state until 1967.
Maryland was one of the last US states to allow blacks and whites to marry, but yesterday it could become one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. Voters in Maine and Washington are also heading to the polls to decide whether to let gays and lesbians wed.
Six US states and Washington already allow gay marriage, but the decisions were made by court rulings and legislative action.
Interracial couples used to travel from Maryland to nearby Washington to wed before the state ban was lifted. It is the same trip same-sex couples now make to marry.
“I couldn’t help but make that comparison,” said Jackson, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and the head of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
Black voters have traditionally been reliable foes of same-sex marriage. In Maryland, Emmett Burns, a prominent black pastor, has been a leading opponent of the referendum and says it is insulting to African Americans to describe marriage as a civil rights issue.
“When did sodomy get to be a civil right?” Burns said in an interview. “Two consenting adults can do what they want in private, but you want to change the definition and make it marriage? No.”
A quarter of the Maryland electorate is black and public opinion polls suggest the outcome of the referendum will be close.
“It was against the law for black people to be married to one another at one time,” Ralph Moore, a community activist, said at a recent debate in Baltimore. “The definition of marriage has constantly been changed in this country.”
“Black people should not be a part of denying rights,” he said. “That’s not how we got here.”
Gay marriage campaigners say they are beginning to win over more black voters, boosted by US President Barack Obama, who was the first US president to support same-sex marriage and has endorsed the efforts in Maryland, Washington State and Maine.
Black celebrities, like hip-hop moguls Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, have also spoken out in support of same-sex marriage.
However, in Maryland, some voters — black and white — will never be convinced.
“When you say that a homosexual family is equal to mine, that’s offensive to me,” said David Austin Nimicks, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund. “We’re talking about the intentional creation of motherless or fatherless families.”