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NEW YORK – Author, activist and lecturer Keith Boykin has stepped forward to head a new national group formed to build black support for marriage equality. The National Black Justice Coalition aims to educate the community on the dangers of the proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians through a massive media campaign that will be launched later this year.
While Boykin is the group’s president, the rest of the board of directors roster reads like a who’s who of black gay leaders and includes such luminaries from across the country as Donna Payne, senior constituency field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign; Mandy Carter, steering committee member of the Freedom to Marry Project; Roddrick A. Colvin, research director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy; Sonya Shields, director of development for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and others.
The vision for the NBJC began to come together at the 40th anniversary of the historic March on Washington in August of last year.
“A group of us started a dialogue about the absence of black LGBTs and about the absence of black LGBT visibility in the community in general,” said Boykin. “So we started talking about what we could do about that.”
A series of ideas was tossed around and then suddenly an event happened that brought the group’s goal clearly into focus.
“As we were in the process of moving forward this marriage issue sort of dropped in our laps with the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in November,” Boykin explained. “After that decision, there was a reaction and a backlash, including some black minister’s alliances that came out opposed to the decision, opposed to marriage and opposed to homosexuality and everything else. There was a big story on the AP wire back in November of last year, which really sparked all this, I think, and that’s really what got us moving.”
Moving they are. The NBJC was officially kicked off with a press conference in December. Plans are currently underway to raise and spend $100,000 for a sophisticated media campaign targeted at black newspapers, magazines and radio stations in select markets across the country. It’s an ambitious task, but Boykin, like most of the members on the board, is well qualified to take it on. A special assistant to President Clinton, Boykin was the highest-ranking openly-gay official in the White House when he left to lead the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum in 1995. A year later, he authored the groundbreaking book “One More River To Cross: Black & Gay In America.”
Boykin left the Forum after two and a half years and went on to carve out a nice career for himself as a sought-after lecturer. So why now has he chosen to head up another group?
“I was crazy,” he said lightheartedly. “I don’t know what the heck I was thinking. Things happen sometimes when we don’t expect them. I was happily minding my own business, so to speak, and then suddenly, you know, it just wasn’t doing it any more. I realized that this is an issue that was too important not to be involved with.”
The urgency of the issue got a big boost last week when President Bush took on gay marriage in his state of the union address.
“Congress has already taken a stand on this issue by passing the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by President Clinton,” Bush told Congress and the country. “Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives.”
Boykin didn’t buy it.
“What makes an activist judge?” he asked. “Are you an activist judge if you strike down a law that guarantees the right to an abortion? Probably not. But you are an activist judge if you strike down a law that’s discriminatory against gays and lesbians. It’s language and rhetoric that doesn’t really mean a lot, but it’s incendiary for the right wing ideologues and it confuses the people in the middle who don’t really have strong opinions about it.”
That’s the main goal of the NBJC – educating those people in the middle.
“On most issues, blacks tend to be very supportive of civil rights for gays and lesbians,” said Boykin. “In fact, all the evidence I’ve seen, everything that I’ve said for the past 10 years or so has been that blacks are much more supportive or equally as supportive of civil rights for gays and lesbians as are whites on every issue except the issue of marriage. I think part of it is because we’re socially conservative.”
The goal then, said Boykin, is to move the discussion from one of morals to one of civil rights.
“I think this has been presented as a moral issue and that obviously taps into our religious influence and the role of the black church,” Boykin explained. “But what we have to do then is reintroduce the issue or reframe the issue as a political issue and as a civil rights issue. As a political issue to let the African-American community know that this is part of a right wing agenda to strip away rights from one group, and if they can come after gays today in the constitution what makes us think they’re not going to come after blacks next? As a political issue that’s important to say that. But as a civil rights issue, I think it’s also important to let people know that marriage is a civil rights issue. This is just like the Loving v. Virginia case, which the Supreme Court decided in 1967. If the court said then that marriage is a fundamental human right and that applies for a black person and a white person, then it should certainly also apply for two men or two women.”