‘They told us marriage equality is not an African-American issue’

rep mary flowers talks to youth

REP. MARY FLOWERS TALKS TO ADVOCATES. PHOTO: TONY MEREVICK / CHICAGO PHOENIX

SPRINGFIELD — Dozens of black LGBTs and their allies met with members of the Black Caucus in the Illinois House Wednesday, urging the lawmakers to vote in favor of a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage despite a barrage of intense pressure from anti-gay pastors to vote against the measure.

Members of the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, the Chicago Urban League, Affinity Community Services and Youth Pride Services arrived by bus from Chicago and tracked down several House legislators as they scrambled between committees all afternoon ahead of the Spring Break deadline on Friday.

The majority of the meetings were successful, achieving constructive conversations with House members who are undecided on the issue of gay marriage, according to Keith Green, chairman of CBGMC.

“There was definitely some progress made today,” Green told Chicago Phoenix. “We got some legislators to firm up to ‘yes.’ It was symbolic for us to be here advocating for a cause.”

But not all of the conversations were as fruitful for the advocates.

“It was shocking to hear from some of the legislators,” said Frank Walker, executive director at YPS. “They told us marriage equality is not an African-American issue because their constituents are telling them it’s not an African-American issue.”

With the clock ticking before break, proponents of the bill are lobbying undecided members in full force to secure the 60 “yes” votes required before the bill can become law. The House vote is the measure’s final challenge, having already passed in a historic Valentine’s Day Senate vote last month. It is unclear when the bill will be called on the House floor.

The Black Caucus comprises 20 representatives from throughout the state. Only one has come out as a “hard no” on the topic and at least four members have pledged to vote “yes,” according to Anthony Martinez, executive director at The Civil Rights Agenda. Another member of the Black Caucus, Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago), is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Meanwhile, a coalition of African-American churches led by Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church, recently threatened to take away their congregations’ support and even bar the lawmakers from attending their churches if they vote to approve gay and lesbian nuptials.

In the face of the opposition, Walker, along with his 7-member contingent of black youth from YPS, met with legislators and toured the House Gallery with Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the chief sponsor of the bill, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act (Senate Bill 10).

Walker and YPS have always supported the marriage equality legislation, but the impetus to travel to the Capitol came when they were informed that black lawmakers weren’t hearing from people of color, he explained.

“It was important to get the point across the we are behind marriage equality and make youth feel affirmed in this struggle,” Walker said.

After the meetings, Green said the impact his advocates made on lawmakers was immense.

“To hear from legislators that they’re happy to see us here — for me, that tells me we need to more and unite more,” Green said.

Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago), a strong supporter of marriage equality, was one of the lawmakers who applauded the advocates for coming together to push for the bill here.

“I don’t have a problem with [same-sex marriage] whatsoever,” Dunkin told the group outside of an afternoon committee meeting. “I’m glad this bill has brought you all together. I always just hear from the white gays and the white lesbians — stay unified and together and help drive us forward.”

Dunkin also invited the groups to address the Black Caucus, which as a whole, abstained from taking a stance on the bill and instead suggested the legislators vote based on support in their respective districts.

“If the whole Black Caucus supported the bill, it would pass,” Dunkin said — and the math adds up. Last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan said the bill has 48 solid “yes” votes.

Undecided Black Caucus members could indeed bring the bill to victory, Martinez confirmed.

“The Black Caucus is kind of all over, but as we say, ‘Everything in Springfield is temporary,’” Martinez said. “There is the ability to move folks to our side, but they need to hear from the community. Legislators are used to hearing from lobbyists and they know us, but having that personal one-on-one contact with someone that this legislation affects is probably the most important part of the work we do.”

Both the CGBMC and the Chicago Urban League circulated letters to the House lawmakers urging them to vote for equality. And depending on when the bill comes up for vote, moving forward, Green said the CGBMC will stage church walkouts in front of anti-gay pastors and even put fake money in collection baskets in retaliation.

“That’s what’s going to happen,” Green said. “Pink Monopoly dollars.”