Point of View

Of grits and gays: The South ultimately will have to recognize equality

December 10, 2013 


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As a born and bred North Carolinian now living and working in Illinois, I find the recent passage of marriage equality legislation here bittersweet. As a gay man, I’m happy to see another state recognize equality. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia – nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population – now recognize same-sex marriages. However, none of those states is below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Once you go below Washington, you’re in a no-man’s land (or no-man-and-man’s land, as it were). As a Southerner, I’m reminded that every time Illinois, or Washington, or Hawaii passes same-sex marriage legislation, North Carolina or Georgia or Louisiana remains seemingly ever-resistant to acknowledging the dignity of my love.

Yet there is hope. With the Windsor decision in June overturning the most restrictive parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (commonly known as DOMA), the Supreme Court has, like dynamite to a dam, released a flood of lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage across the nation, including the South. With the federal government now recognizing same-sex unions, the state-sanctioned and homophobic inequality of same-sex couples in the South has a challenger worthy to the task. And, in a potential development so far overlooked by both LGBT and civil rights groups, Windsor created new opportunities not only for marriage equality but racial equality as well.

David Boies and Ted Olson – the legal team that successfully argued against Proposition 8 in California – has already brought a lawsuit in Virginia, Bostic v. Rainey, arguing against the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Their ultimate goal is a national decision from the U.S. Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right. If this occurs, gay men and lesbians will able to start marrying throughout the South.

As undoubtedly transformative to the South as same-sex marriage would be, attention should also be focused on the change that the South could bring to the subject. The same region of the country that bans same-sex marriage from Virginia to Texas also has 26 percent of its same-sex couples raising children, which is the highest percentage of any region in the United States (according to the Williams Institute) – more than New England, the birthplace of same-sex marriage, and more than California and the West Coast, an area so often on the vanguard of marriage equality. These Southern LGBT couples are raising families outside the legal marriage protections that other regions offer and yet are nonetheless leading the nation in forming LGBT-led families.

Perhaps even more important for the marriage equality movement, the racial diversity of the South as a whole is also reflected in the numbers of same-sex couples in the South, especially in regards to African-Americans. The Williams Institute reports that African-American individuals in same-sex couples tend to live in areas where there are higher proportions of African-Americans. About 57 percent of African-Americans live in the Southern United States, according to analysis from the Brookings Institution. The data are clear: The geographic home of lesbian and gay African-American couples is the South.

The continued marriage discrimination against LGBT individuals in the South not merely perpetuates an inequality based on sexual orientation, but effectively limits same-sex marriage from a vast majority of one racial group. These same-sex marriage bans are not only homophobic in intention but racist in effect.

National LGBT organizations should be aware of this data and use it to plan their strategies for marriage equality. Time, resources and money should all be heavily invested in legal challenges and political organizing in Southern states to overturn same-sex marriage bans. And those challenges and organizing attempts should all take into account the racial elements of such prohibitions.

Reaching out to LGBT African-Americans, and their allies, is critical to bringing about much needed change. Especially for a movement often perceived, fairly or not, as lily-white, such acknowledgement of the South’s need for equality – in all aspects of the word – would go a long way toward continuing to build a pro-LGBT coalition that reflects America’s racial diversity and is capable of responding to the conservative social backlash that would follow any movement towards equality.

Whether through the courts, state-by-state battles or merely the slow movement of time, marriage equality will come to the South. Data already show that same-sex couples are as much a part of the South as grits and college football. It is time to recognize this inherent opportunity for bringing about equality in my home region, and, in turn, acknowledging whom that equality will most affect.

Carr Harkrader works for an interfaith nonprofit in Chicago.

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