Same-Sex Marriage Debate: Racially Divisive NOM Memos Stir Controversy

Black, Anti-Gay Marriage Reverend Angered By NOM Memo: "It Will Backfire"

Until this week, the Rev. Ralph A. Martino, senior pastor at First Church of Christ (Holiness) USA in Washington, D.C., had never heard of the National Organization for Marriage, the nation's leading group fighting same-sex marriage.

But although the black pastor is also a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, Martino is determined to never work with the organization after a leak of its confidential memos this week revealed its plans to defeat marriage equality campaigns by "fanning the hostility" between blacks and gays.

"If this is the type of weaponry a group uses in order to stir up warfare and foster division, then we're not part of that," Martino said. "This angle creates unnecessary drama and it will backfire."

The drama has already begun, with a range of civil rights and lesbian, gay and bisexual advocacy groups issuing statements calling the strategies racist and cynical. The memos are also sparking a difficult conversation about real tensions between black and gay rights groups, with members of both saying more dialogue is needed.

"The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies," states one of the memos. "Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots," continued the memo, part of a set of documents that emerged as a result of a Maine lawsuit and then were leaked by the Human Rights Campaign.

The memos amount to "a wake-up call," said Michael Crawford, director of online programs for Freedom to Marry in New York, because they detail how to exploit racial tensions. Plus he noted the National Organization for Marriage seems to believe that he -- as a black gay male -- does not exist.

"It's like they're trying to divide me from myself," Crawford said. "But there is a huge overlap in these communities. And if NOM is so focused on dividing us, the LGBT community needs to do a much better job reaching out to the black community -- not just on the issue of marriage but on a whole range of issues."

Tension between the two communities has been perceived for a while. In 2008, when California voters approved Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, a majority of black voters supported the measure. The National Organization for Marriage seized on that fact, according a 2009 memo, as way to mobilize opposition for marriage equality.

In Maryland, where the governor signed legislation on March 1 allowing for same-sex marriage, the black community was split on the issue. Opponents are already planning a referendum in an attempt to repeal the new law, with 48 percent of African-Americans in favor of banning same-sex marriage and 29 percent supporting it, according to a recent OpinionWorks poll.

"People can and will debate the merits of marriage equality, which I think is all about fairness and stronger families," said Elbridge James, chair of the Maryland State NAACP Political Action Committee, in a statement released by Marylanders for Marriage Equality. "But trying to divide Marylanders based on race is a tactic that only hurts all Marylanders." Added James: "The people of Maryland should not be used.”

"This is a divisive issue," said the Rev. Delman Coates, one of two Baptist preachers who testified in support of the Maryland legislation last month. Disturbed by the memos, Coates admitted that he has struggled to find the right way to talk about marriage equality with other clergy and members of his church. "I challenge them to be more reflective about the rights that they enjoy and ask if they want to deny those same rights and benefits to other citizens," he said, pausing for a long breath. "It's a difficult conversation to have."

But the conversations have become in easier in recent years, Coates noted. And recent polling by the Wall Street Journal and NBC suggests that the public opinion about same-sex marriage is shifting to be favorable more rapidly than has been the case with any other social issue in recent memory, particularly among blue-collar and African American voters. From October 2009 to March 2012, African-American support for gay marriage rose from 32 percent to 50 percent.

The National Organization for Marriage has also targeted Hispanic voters, according to its internal memos. In addition, the group's memos describe a strategy for recruiting "noncognitive" celebrities to promote its cause, as well as a "next generation" of Ivy League elites "capable of creating pro-marriage culture more broadly construed."

The National Organization for Marriage did not respond to a request for comment, although its president, Brian Brown, stressed the group's history of collaborating with African-American and Hispanic leaders in a statement. "We proudly bring together people of different races, creeds and colors to fight for our most fundamental institution: marriage," he said. In a fundraising email this week, Brown acknowledged, "Let me be the first to say that the tone of the language in that document as quoted by the press is inapt."

Several groups roundly condemned the memos. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the National Organization for Marriage "presses hard on the hate group line."

On Friday, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation added the National Organization for Marriage to its watch list of right-wing pundits and groups that have made anti-LGBT comments. The NAACP and the People for the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council also issued statements condemning the memos.

Many civil rights experts and advocates are waiting to see how the public reacts to the leaked memos.

"It just doesn't sound like a well thought-out, particularly winning strategy because it clearly shows disdain for both groups," said Paula McClain, a Duke University professor of political science and African-American studies. "It's also naive about the sophistication of black voters," she added. "There isn't some monolithic black community out there that's somehow going to be swayed by several ministers who get on TV."

The memos present an opening for marriage equality advocates to do deeper outreach within the African-American community, she said. "It gives you a point to start discussions."

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