Black Influentials, Paradox Progress and LGBT Rights in Mississippi

Last week's decision incould lift the ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi forever. However, that decision is unique among other pro-marriage-equality rulings in that it came from the pen of a black U.S. district judge with a strong record of supporting civil rights.
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This court joins the vast majority of federal courts to conclude that same-sex couples and the children they raise are equal before the law. The State of Mississippi cannot deny them the marriage rights and responsibilities it holds out to opposite-sex couples and their children. Mississippi's statute and constitutional amendment violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Hon. Carlton Reeves)

The civil-rights struggle and progress will inevitably run through Mississippi.

Last week's decision in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant could lift the ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi forever. However, that decision is unique among other pro-marriage-equality rulings in that it came from the pen of a Black U.S. district judge with a strong record of supporting civil rights, and immediately the civil-rights battle was expanded to include marriage equality.

The state, infamous for its vehement attacks on civil rights and its latent coming to terms with the many injustices it has perpetrated, is poised to battle again.

But, this time, race is not the primary issue in Mississippi's newest civil-rights battle.

It was last Tuesday when the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi Judge Carlton Reeves, an Obama appointee, rendered his decision in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, a case that involves two white lesbian plaintiff couples. Judge Reeves overturned the 1997 law and 2004's Amendment 1 that prohibited same-sex marriage.

The decision gave the 3,484 same-sex couples who live in the state hope for legal recognition of their unions. The decision also gives hope and affirmation to the many other LGBT Mississippians not yet coupled.

Judge Reeves granted a two-week stay to give the attorneys for the State of Mississippi time to ask the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block Reeves' order.

However, two weeks were not needed. Within hours of Judge Reeves' decision, Mississippi state elected officials, led by Gov. Bryant and Attorney General Hood, quickly appealed the ruling. Now, if the Fiftth Circuit doesn't rule in the case, Mississippi clerks may start issuing marriage licenses on Dec. 10.

Black Influencers Help Dispel the Myth of Universal Black Homophobia

The marriage-equality movement in Mississippi has inched closer to its goal because of African-American influencers. Judge Reeves rendered the decision overturning the ban. Reeves was appointed by the nation's first Black president, Obama, who nominated Eric Holder as the nation's first Black attorney general. Through their web of civil-rights advocacy, these three Black heterosexual men have helped guide the nation toward greater acceptance of LGBT rights by changing the policy landscape on LGBT issues -- from the repeal of DADT to the refusal to defend DOMA to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and now the near-arrival of marriage equality in the Deep South state with the most notorious record on civil rights. Moreover, Reeves' judgment affirming marriage equality makes him the first Black U.S. district judge from the South to do so.

Influential, heterosexual Black heads of civil rights organizations have also helped promote equality in the Magnolia State. Over the last few years the NAACP and particularly the National Black Justice Coalition, led by Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer and strong heterosexual ally Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, visited Clarksdale, Mississippi, deep in the Delta, in the aftermath of the murder of openly gay Black mayoral candidate Marco McMillan. Before Ferguson became the movement that it is, Lettman-Hicks was demanding police accountability in the botched investigation into McMillian's murder. Despite her many valiant efforts, including writing to the U.S. Justice Department, much is still unknown about the case.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of Mississippians identify as "very religious," and 53.4 percent identify as "conservative," making Mississippi the most religious and the most conservative state in the United States. In its state government, Mississippi is one of 23 state-government trifectas, with Republicans controlling the governorship and both houses in the state legislature. For the vast majority of the state's residents, religious morality and sociopolitical conservatism collude to form a conservative Christian-based religious intersectional identity.

Just this week a Black church, Rocky Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Terry, Mississippi, led by Rev. Jack Williams, became the first group to publicly protest the ruling on the steps of the federal courthouse in Mississippi.

In this context, the convergence of heterosexual Black influencers on LGBT rights in Mississippi has ushered a web of change for the LGBT movement throughout the state.

Mississippi Is Experiencing a Racial and Sexual Paradox

Home to the largest proportion of Black residents (nearly 40 percent of Mississippians) and the highest number of Black elected officials of any state in the country, Mississippi has still never elected a Black person to statewide public office and is home to the worst city for LGBT rights in the United States. According to a Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) report, Mississippi earned a 9.8 out of a possible 100 points on HRC's annual Municipality Index. The city of Southaven, a community comprising 50,000 residents, scored 0 out of 100 points and is classified, according to the HRC, as the worst city for LGBT rights in the country. However, Mississippi is also the state with the highest proportion of same-sex couples raising biological or adopted children or stepchildren (26 percent).

These starkly contrasting statistics illuminate a sexual paradox in the lived experiences of same-gender-loving couples in Mississippi.

For African Americans in Mississippi, a racial paradox also reveals itself in the variation among political influentials' opinions on same-sex marriage. While Reeves is now the highest-ranking Black political influential in the state affirming marriage equality, some influential locals are not as supportive.

In the city of Starkville, where Mississippi State University is located, the municipality's board of aldermen unanimously supported a policy extending healthcare benefits to any "plus one" adult of a city employee, only to rescind their decision after significant pressure from area Christian ministers. The mayor had to veto the board's actions to keep the policy alive. Actively engaged in that effort myself, I was amazed at how few Christian pastors supported basic health coverage for "nontraditional" families. For them, their interpretation of the Bible leads them to believe that the extension of health coverage was an indirect way of forcing them to agree with what some in the debates called "a sin against God."

Even more vexing, though, was how the vice chair of the board, who is Black, voted against the extension of benefits. The Vice Chair earlier this year proposed the city's historic (but nonbinding) LGBT-equality resolution, which was adopted. But concerning the extension of health benefits, he switched his vote. The board's two remaining African-American aldermen, who either voted against the extension of benefits or abstained, joined him. White men upheld it.

The civil-rights victory of legally recognizing the status of same-gender-loving couples and their families that was made possible by a federal Black influential was rejected just two months ago by local Black influentials.

But the stereotype of the Black church as "anti-gay" is not entirely accurate. The Black middle class drives the Black church, so if the Black church has a stance on homosexuality, it may not be because of Black church sexuality politics but because of middle-class respectability sexual politics.

As the Mississippi paradox informs, the opinions of Black influentials differ on marriage equality; thus, clearly, the opinions of Blacks in general will also vary.

Paradox Progress

A professor at Mississippi State University conducts a biennial poll, the Mississippi Poll, where in 2014 a majority of respondents favored legal recognition of same-sex unions.

Yet this is the same state where (1) an LGBTQ person can still be fired for their sexual orientation or gender expression, (2) hate-crime laws don't include sexual orientation or gender expression as protected classes, and (3) nontraditional families who work at public, federally funded, equal-opportunity and affirmative-action universities cannot receive familial health insurance, and it's also the same state with the highest proportions of same-sex couples raising biological or adopted children or stepchildren.

Attitudes may be changing in Mississippi, but the policies have yet to catch up.

Even in the state's battle for last place, a paradox exists. Rolling Stone this month just listed and explained why Mississippi is the worst state for LGBT people (and everyone else too). But the Daily Beast has given the state a score of -1 on gay rights, listing laws that ban adoption rights and marriage and don't protect gays and lesbians from abuses as reasons.

Mississippi is last and, apparently, even worst than last.

It is in this paradoxical context that some facts yet remain constant. Poverty is at the highest; the public-education system is the fourth worst vis-à-vis other states; the obesity rate is the highest of all states; and residents have the shortest life span. All of this occurs alongside limited access to health care, strong conservative values, and a religious zeal that has resulted in a current 2015 ballot initiative, The Heritage Initiative, that seeks to make Christianity the official religion of the state, "Dixie" the official state song, English the official language, and April "Confederate Heritage Month," among other preferences.

But not all is forsaken. People like me and my spouse have chosen to move to Mississippi. Leaving behind the comforts of equality in Massachusetts, we find much to enjoy in the Magnolia State. And other LGBTQ persons have as well. Just last month HRC Mississippi launched a new billboard as part of their recently unveiled All of God's Children program. The billboard in Jackson, Mississippi, like others across the state, features Sgt. Justin Kelly, an openly gay Iraq War veteran from Mississippi's Delta region. His story is amplified by the thousands of other Mississippians who are LGBTQ and/or share enlightening stories about being LGBTQ in Mississippi.

Magnolias in Bloom

The Reeves decision on marriage equality in the state most infamous for anti-civil-rights aggression proves why elections matter.

Obama's election made his appointment possible. His appointment made marriage equality in Mississippi a reality. His decision in the state least prepared for the 21st century, though nearly 15 years into it already, matters because it reminds us what a judicial system is supposed to do: protect the civil rights and civil liberties for all of its citizens.

That the decision was rendered in a state where public opinion on civil rights is still being written, the 13th Amendment was just formally ratified a year ago, and the majority of residents once vehemently rejected all Blacks as equals, is significant.

With this decision overturning the ban on same-sex marriage, Mississippi has already come a long way, and while there is much more work to finish, magnolias are in bloom for LGBT rights.

But, as with any flower, the season of bloom will soon end. In the time in between, we have a chance to eliminate the racial and sexual paradox.

Ravi K. Perry is Vice President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies and is an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University.

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