Fight over gay marriage divides Maryland
Blacks torn by legacy of discrimination as same-sex marriage is on ballot in three states
Ezekiel Jackson is black and his wife is white. As Jackson campaigned to legalise gay marriage in Maryland, he likened the plight of same-sex couples to that of interracial couples, who were banned from marrying in the state until 1967.
Maryland was one of the last states to allow blacks and whites to marry, but it could become one of the first states to legalise same-sex marriage by a popular vote. Voters in Maine and Washington also headed to the polls yesterday to decide whether to let gays and lesbians wed.
Six US states and the District of Columbia already allow gay marriage, but the decisions were made by court rulings and legislative action.
Interracial couples used to travel from Maryland to nearby Washington to wed before the state ban was lifted. It is the same trip same-sex couples now make to marry.
"I couldn't help but make that comparison," said Jackson, an organiser with the Service Employees International Union and the head of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
Black voters have been reliable foes of same-sex marriage. In Maryland, Emmett Burns, a prominent black pastor, has been a leading opponent of the referendum and says it is insulting to African Americans to describe marriage as a civil rights issue. "When did sodomy get to be a civil right?" Burns said. "Two consenting adults can do what they want in private but you want to change the definition and make it marriage? No."
A quarter of the Maryland electorate is black and public opinion polls suggest the outcome of the referendum will be close.
"It was against the law for black people to be married to one another at one time," community activist Ralph Moore said at a recent debate in Baltimore. "The definition of marriage has constantly been changed in this country.
"Black people should not be a part of denying rights. That's not how we got here."
Gay marriage campaigners say they are beginning to win over more black voters, boosted by President Barack Obama, who was the first US president to support same-sex marriage and has endorsed the efforts in Maryland, Washington and Maine.
Black celebrities like hip hop moguls Jay-Z and Russell Simmons have also spoken out in support of same-sex marriage.
But in Maryland, some voters - black and white - will never be convinced. Last month, several dozen people gathered at a Christian centre in Davidsonville for an event held by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, the main group opposing the referendum.
"When you say that a homosexual family is equal to mine, that's offensive to me," said David Austin Nimicks, a lawyer with the Alliance Defence Fund. "We're talking about the intentional creation of motherless or fatherless families."