Guest Blogger

How Marriage Equality Can Save the Black Family

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 07, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: black families, marriage equality, Maya Rupert, NCLR, same-sex marriage

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Maya Rupert is the Federal Policy Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

black-family.jpgJune is here. Cue the gloom and doom stories about the state of the black family, and the finger pointing as we figure out who to blame.

Unfortunately, this summer has potential to dredge up the familiar and false dichotomy that pits the black community against the LGBT community.

Between DOMA challenges, California's Prop 8 appeal, New York's campaign for marriage equality, and the fact that June is Pride month, there will be significant media attention in the coming weeks devoted to the issue of marriage for same-sex couples. Then there's the conversation that begins around this time every year with the approach of Father's Day about black fathers abandoning their families at high rates and the impact this is having on the black family and, by extension, the black community.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have both made headlines in the past for using Father's Day to criticize absentee black fathers. Following the decision of the administration to stop defending DOMA, some questioned whether these black leaders were working to strengthen the black family.

Taken together, these discussions threaten to reignite the damaging dialogue that the needs of the black community and the needs of the LGBT community are inherently at odds. A narrative that tells us that working to advance marriage equality automatically undermines the strength and security of the black family.

Not only is it a damaging narrative, but, as it turns out, it is also completely untrue. In fact, the fight for marriage equality works in tandem with the movement to strengthen the black family. Achieving marriage equality will actually help save the black family.

First, laws that prohibit same-sex marriage disproportionately harm black same-sex couples. According to the last Census, twice as many black same-sex couples are raising children as white same-sex couples. Black same-sex couples are also much more likely to be struggling economically. Achieving marriage equality will grant important benefits to these couples that will allow them to take care of and provide for their children and themselves.

But marriage equality helps the black community in a much broader way. Marriage equality is not just about relationship recognition. It's about family recognition, and the black community benefits from laws and policies that recognize the diversity of how families look, and demand equality for all families.

Understanding the fight for marriage equality solely as an issue about rights of LGBT families is like understanding the reproductive justice movement as a fight solely about abortion. While abortion may have the most visibility, more broadly, the movement is about increasing quality access to healthcare and reproductive services for all women.

Likewise, marriage equality is not just about DOMA. It's not just about Prop 8. The fight for marriage equality is about fighting for equal recognition of all families. It's about combating the assumption that someone else can tell us what our families should look like. And in the black community, that assumption is dangerous, because black families are becoming increasingly nontraditional.

Black families are more likely to be headed by single mothers. However, many of those mothers live with another person who helps raise the children, regardless of whether they are biologically or legally recognized as a parent. Black families are also more likely to consist of multi-generational households. And the same policies that allow a same-sex couple to parent their children with access to all benefits they would otherwise receive grant those same benefits to aunts and uncles to raise their nieces and nephews and grandparents to raise their grandchildren. They are the same policies that allow a boyfriend to take time off work to care for his girlfriend's sick child even when there is no biological relationship.

The principle that all families look different and all must be respected lies at the foundation of the struggle to strengthen the black family.

The black community must be wary of any attempt to restrict the understanding of a family without considering the cultural implications because the result will be exclusion of many of our families. The rights of minority groups are inextricably linked, and any law that is designed to create an out group reinforces a destructive culture for all minority communities.

Even if your family doesn't look like families in the LGBT community, if it doesn't look like families in the broader community either, you will be harmed by laws that aim to narrow the definition of family. Fighting for the recognition of all families is the only way to protect families in the black community.

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Jay Kallio | June 7, 2011 7:07 PM

Marriage Equality and other legislative goals of the LGBTQ movement all benefit the poor of every race and ethnicity far more than they benefit the wealthy, for the wealthy can buy protection, advocacy, respect, and regard from others. The wealthy do do face the discrimination, bigotry, and hostility of others to anywhere near the same degree, and type, that the rest of us less privileged face. The wealthy do not need legislation, they can buy what they want. It is the poor and disenfranchised minority groups who benefit from legislation that gives us equality in benefits and equal protection under the law.

In the US marriage benefits offer those of us who are most marginalized opportunity for health care coverage through spousal employer based coverage that can mean the difference between life and death. That impacted my late partner and I very much. She would very likely be alive today, had we been able to get married. She would have been eligible for health insurance coverage as my spouse. Instead we were chronically destitute due to the extreme cost of chronic illness and complications, ending in her tragic death. It was all preventable suffering and loss, but we did not have the insurance coverage, as our heterosexual counterparts did.

As a lifelong social justice activist, her early disability and death was a tremendous blow to our movement. Many called her a lesbian feminist icon. She was a brilliant woman and powerhouse of a leader.

That is only one example of the way a piece of legislation can be a tremendous boon to the poorest, most powerless in our community. In that respect, all equal rights legislation is primarily about class and privilege, and giving those of us most desperate, most at risk, and most unheard, a chance to survive and someday thrive.

We can debate our community priorities, and argue well over which efforts should go first as we move forward, but I also always remember that every legislative success builds our momentum for greater success ahead, and so we also must pick fights we can win, to start off with. And then, it takes trust and an unfailing dedication to not leave anyone behind to continue that fight until all are protected, and equal. That's what I fight for.

Benefits like health care won't help families where neither person has employee-sponsored health care to start with, an increasingly common scenario in the US. That's not to say that those who have that advantage shouldn't go ahead and take it anyway, but we ought to be realistic. A great many heterosexuals suffer inordinately from a lack of health care simply because they're not married to people who have health insurance.

And, Maya, you write: " families are becoming increasingly nontraditional" and "...the same policies that allow a same-sex couple to parent their children with access to all benefits they would otherwise receive grant those same benefits to aunts and uncles to raise their nieces and nephews and grandparents to raise their grandchildren. They are the same policies that allow a boyfriend to take time off work to care for his girlfriend's sick child even when there is no biological relationship." You're right about the first statement, and that's also true for many non-Black families.

As for your second statement: if, according to you, it is the case that grandparents etc. are in fact supported by the state to raise children or that non-biological parental units (to use a slightly technical term) are actually allowed to do so, why do we still need marriage?

I don't know it to be true that non-parents are in fact given so many rights. In fact, the huge issue with the foster and adoption system in the U.S is precisely that the state's model of the "ideal" family is based on a retrograde idea of a two-parent household being the best for a child, which is why so many Black children are forcibly taken away from their mothers, especially when they come from poor families. Dorothy Roberts, in her book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, has an excellent analysis of this phenomenon. It sometimes makes for harrowing reading, but I encourage everyone to take a look at it.

The gay marriage campaign is in fact bound up in a campaign to preserve a much older form of family - the only thing "non-traditional" about it is that the parents are of the same sex. In every other way, what the marriage campaigns have emphasised, over and over again, is that the gay family is *exactly* the same as the ideal heterosexual family - intergenerational parenting and non-marital partners taking care of children would be frowned upon in this scenario.

So, I'm genuinely curious: could you point us to specific instances which indicate that the state in fact encourages non-traditional families? If that is the case, I'd be ecstatic and also wonder - in that case, how does the gay marriage movement make a strong case that marriage is the answer? Why do we need marriage?

Jay Kallio | June 7, 2011 8:21 PM

We need marriage for all the disadvantaged LGBTQ people who will suffer and die because they cannot get the benefits the US accrues to marriage. I care about those folks, and it will be a very, very long time before those benefits will otherwise be available outside of marriage.

The US has never even come near the European social democratic model of rights that are granted the individual, regardless of marriage or family status. This country is way behind. While we take the long road to achieving that kind of more egalitarian model of government and social organization and distribution of resources, there are countless people who will literally suffer and die from poverty and lack of access.

As an example; recent health care reform efforts disintegrated into a pale shadow of reform, and it appears very little in the way of greater access will be achieved as the paltry reforms are enacted. There was almost no mobilization by the left, unions, or other traditionally radical forces to fight for a public single payer health care system that would actually solve many of our health care access problems. No progress was made to save the lives of all who cannot afford health care, and even the few community hospitals left who provide access to care to all are being closed, because of their failure to achieve profits.

I cannot leave all those people behind without the small additional rights and benefits that the heteronormative world enjoys. They live, while our people die. We need all our LGBTQ people alive and well, and fighting with us.

I prefer to take a practical approach to achieving equality, and as more of our LGBTQ folks get a roof over their heads and can get medical coverage they will be all the more inclined to help fight the next battles. Employment protections are also being fought for and won, piece by piece, in many areas. It takes incremental gains to seal this deal.

I would further suggest that our LGBTQ alternative families need the support of our LGBTQ organizations. Building support systems that recognize and honor our relationships and families are the precursor to gaining rights and privileges for our nontraditional relationships. Once we have successful models in place we can document those successes, and promote them more widely. Meanwhile, I do not want to leave the least powerful without equal access.

Marriage equality is obviously not going to benefit everyone in our community. It was never posited to benefit all, only those who wish to enter into that contract. The road to equality will be far longer for those who do not. Absolutely true. The US is a conservative country, and turning it's direction is like trying to shift the path of the Titanic. Get ready for the long haul.

I also suggest that different people can choose to work toward different goals, without making others wrong for their choices. Long term goals are vital and need all the creativity and elbow grease that can be mobilized on their behalf. And we also need the interim gains and protections in the short term, so no one is painfully sacrificed on the alter of social theory or visions of a future long in the making.

"It takes all kinds, to make the world".

I appreciate the response, but I would really like Maya to respond to my query.

That being said: no one is insisting that we “leave all those people behind,” and I hardly think heteros, fewer and fewer of whom are getting married, I might add, are doing that well. No one is queer in insularity, and focusing so much energy on gay marriage without also persistently pointing out that marriage is hardly beneficial even for straights – poor women who depend on the state for child assistance, for instance, literally cannot afford to marry because the state would them as unqualified for assistance, even if their spouses are just as poor - seems much more like leaving a lot of people behind.

As for the issue of practicality: Nancy Polikoff has shown in both her book, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage, and her blogs on Bilerico that a US where benefits don't accrue only to the married is hardly a dream; many states and the federal government have been slowly working to dissociate benefits from marriage, which is as it should be. I would also point out that the gay marriage movement is in fact a remarkably young movement, and gay marriage was long considered a ridiculously unattainable goal because, yes, there were no real models for it anywhere in the states. In comparison, policies that don't only benefit married people – such as the ridiculously simple idea that single people are entitled to health care – have been around for much longer.

All that being said: I would really like Maya to address my specific questions.

Let me add: Maya's well within her rights to not respond, of course (on my own posts, I will sometimes let discussions continue without chiming in), but I'd appreciate a response to my question about facts, either from her or someone else.

Let me add: Maya's well within her rights to not respond, of course (on my own posts, I will sometimes let discussions continue without chiming in), but I'd appreciate a response to my question about facts, either from her or someone else.

Maya Rupert | June 14, 2011 1:42 PM

Hi Yasmin,

Apologies for not responding right away. Thanks for your question. I'm actually arguing that the the state *doesn't* currently make efforts to support non-traditional families, but that it should. So the point I was trying to make is actually the same one it seems you are making - the state should have policies that support all families, and advocating for marriage equality helps all non-traditional families. Thanks for reading and thinking about the piece and these issues!


Thanks for responding, and my turn to apologise - I didn't check the notifications box and only just saw this.

You still haven't responded to the central question, though: why not simply push for support of non-traditional families instead of marriage? Why should marriage be the only way to access that kind of support?