If the NAACP wants to be a truly inclusive 21st century civil rights organization, it must settle its internal squabbles and officially support same sex marriage. In a year that sees the nation's first black president give a powerful speech on family and social values at the association's 100th anniversary while a Latina woman is about to ascend to the highest court in the land, would any other position make sense? As state after state pushes forward for marriage equality, why should the NAACP act like some backwater province of old ideologies? In an era where the very relevance of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seems to be in question, why not show it can -- and should -- still lead the social justice conversation?
On the encouraging side of things, NAACP national chair Julian Bond and president and CEO Benjamin Jealous both support same sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality -- especially blacks -- should listen to Bond's detailed and powerful speech to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) earlier this year. In one of the most eloquent cases laid out against homophobia by a black leader (ahem, Mr. President) and in support of full social equality for gays, Bond said, "Black people, out of all people, should not oppose equality. And that is what gay marriage is." He went on to dismantle down to the biblical level the hypocrisy found in the black church. It's as clear a case as I've ever heard made against persistent intolerance towards gays.
In a recent CNN interview, the 30-something Jealous also responded to the gay marriage question, but was less vehement. He espoused his own support for marriage rights while at the same time acknowledging the internal battle over the matter. Jealous seemed to be more comfortable leaving the debate to NAACP stakeholders. Apparently there's even a GLBT Task Force lobbying from within for the NAACP to fully get on the bus for equality. Of course, all of this leaves me wondering why the issue needs to be left to consensus, when basic human rights are what's on the table. Isn't that just part of the group's charter?
As Jealous points out on CNN, choosing your battles is prudent in these turbulent times. The NAACP ranks are filled with well-intentioned, hard working Christians who simply don't believe that God would accept Adam and Andrew sharing a loft in West Hollywood. I get it. Religion and the church remain the muscle of the association and a divided NAACP isn't the desired outcome of any debate. But if the NAACP wants to thrive in the 21st century, it can't kowtow to exclusionary theology. Even in President Obama's entire electrifying speech, he mentions gay rights with the same emphasis as those of the communities the NAACP historically addresses.
Now, I'm not here to bash on religion, or even single out black homophobia as the sole culprit in the marriage equality struggle -- the intolerance camp is a multicultural bunch. The messy and unfair attacks on blacks that emerged from the aftermath of Proposition 8's passage in California was unfortunate and it left many on the defensive. But this doesn't change the fact that the gay marriage movement is also a teachable moment in the black civil rights movement. Bond said in his speech, "It does not matter the rationale... No people of good will should oppose marriage equality."
But I'd be remiss if I didn't hold our president's feet to the flame a bit too. Obama is still skittish about same sex couples being allowed to marry, as opposed to having civil unions. He also hasn't stood firm to remove the military's so-called "don't ask, don't tell"" policy, much to the disappointment of many in the GLBT community. The NAACP should consider right now a very public chance for black leadership to influence the national conversation in a bold way.
In the end -- as is the trend in America as a whole -- demographics will ultimately drive the gay rights battle in the NAACP. An aging layer of more conservative and religious constituents is giving way to a new generation, far more tolerant and progressive. The strict covenants of the black church are of little interest and its antiquated positions -- from rap to sex to HIV -- seem quaint to the Obama Generation. One-hundred years ago the NAACP was founded on a radical principle of equality that was far ahead of its time. Today, the group has a chance to do the right thing again.