'I thought, this is the same crap I went through 40 years ago.'
- N.H. state Rep. Carol Estes, who is black, and couldn't marry her husband,
who is white, until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned laws banning
interracial marriage, on a proposed amendment to the N.H. constitution to
ban the marriages of same-sex couples.
On March 28, after listening to her fellow lawmakers debate for nearly 90 minutes about a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in New Hampshire, Plymouth Rep. Carole Estes addressed her colleagues and gave a speech that may go down in history as one of the defining moments in the state’s debate around same-sex marriage. Estes, a 68-year-old Florida native who moved to New Hampshire in 2004, described her experiences growing up as a black woman in the Jim Crow South, giving her colleagues a firsthand look at what it means to be treated as a second-class citizen.
“For the first 38 years of my life my public actions were limited or impacted by constitutional or legislative fiat,” Estes told her colleagues. “Most of you have never had to deal with the actions that I dealt with every day. By law I could not go to a theater, I could not go to a library or a restaurant where whites were. In fact, I was 18 years old before I ever spoke to a white as an equal. I could not attend a first-class elementary or high school. I could not attend a public college. I could not try on any article of clothing, nor could I return it when it was purchased. By law I served in a segregated Air Force unit. In uniform I could not choose my seat on a bus or a train. I could not vote, nor could I marry the man I loved because he was white and I am not.”
Estes told her colleagues that after suffering under a system of discrimination enforced by state and federal law, she could not allow gay and lesbian people living in New Hampshire to endure the same fate.
“To be charitable I am sure that these laws were enacted by well-meaning individuals who believed they were preserving a way of life, because after all the United States Constitution agreed with them. And the impact on 20 million black Americans was viewed as collateral damage,” said Estes. “Over the last 30 years I have worked mightily to overcome the feelings of being less than, and irony of ironies, I am now asked to enshrine discrimination in the New Hampshire Constitution and force a total of 700 same-sex couples, who in fact have been enumerated by the 2000 US Census, to become less than. For too many years we have spent time believing that I was a second-class citizen. The laws told me so. I cannot perpetuate such a travesty, even though the people say that they should vote. They have voted in the past, and in fact what we find is people become less than. I ask of you to please uphold the majority opinion and do not enshrine such discrimination so that anyone else has to undergo such a horrible thought, that they are less than.”
After Estes finished her speech the chamber erupted in applause as her fellow lawmakers gave her a standing ovation. The text of her speech was printed in the House Democratic caucus newsletter, and a video of the speech was uploaded to YouTube and posted on the progressive political blog Blue Hampshire. Local media also wrote about her speech in coverage of the debate. Following her speech the House delivered a decisive defeat to the marriage amendment, voting it down 233-124. A week later the House voted 243-129 in favor of a bill to establish civil unions, and the Senate judiciary committee held a hearing on a civil union bill April 10.
It is unclear if Estes’s speech swayed any votes against the marriage amendment, which had been expected to fail going into the vote. But in comparing the discrimination against same-sex couples to the discrimination that she faced as a black woman under segregation, she sent the message to her fellow lawmakers that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. Opponents of same-sex marriage have worked at the state and national level to counter that message, accusing the LGBT community of hijacking the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in an effort to drive a wedge between the LGBT and black communities. At the national level the religious right powerhouse Focus on the Family has argued that calling same-sex marriage a civil rights issue is an insult to the black community, a point that the organization includes in its talking points on its website. That point has also been hammered home by some prominent black clergy opposed to same-sex marriage including, locally, Black Ministerial Alliance President Bishop Gilbert Thompson, who in 2004 told ABC News, “I was born black. I was born male. Homosexuals are not born, they’re made. They don’t qualify.”
Yet despite the efforts by anti-gay activists to argue that LGBT rights are not civil rights, Estes is hardly alone among black lawmakers in making that comparison. In Massachusetts two of the leaders in the legislature on the pro-equality side, Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) and Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston), gave speeches to their colleagues during the 2004 debates on a same-sex marriage ban amendment that drew specific connections between discrimination against the black and gay communities. Rushing spoke about the court decision that found slavery illegal under the Massachusetts constitution and said, “We were able to take this remarkable position because of a constitution that said liberty would be available to every citizen of this Commonwealth. We are being called by some today to change that. We are being asked to say to one group, ‘You no longer have the rights of everyone else in this Commonwealth.’”
Wilkerson, meanwhile, spoke about growing up in Arkansas during segregation and of her family’s flight to Massachusetts, telling her colleagues, “I can’t send anyone to that place from where my family fled. My grandmother would never forgive me. I implore my colleagues to reject this measure so we can get on with very, very important business.”
More recently in Connecticut, another prominent black state lawmaker, Sen. Edwin Gomes, spoke in favor of marriage equality while listening to testimony during a judiciary committee hearing March 26 on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Regarding the marriage equality bill Gomes said, “I never viewed this as a minor change or something small. I know that it’s something major. It’s as major as anything else. It’s as major as changing the 1965 act of interracial couples being married. It’s almost as large as changing the law of not equating a black man of being three-fifths of a man. But these are major changes and somewhere in the future there might be other changes to it. But I think it’s a change worth making right now.” Like Estes and Wilkerson, Gomes knows firsthand what it was like living under segregation, having been stationed in Virginia during the late 50s while serving in the Army.
And at the national level, Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who led the famed 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, was one of the staunchest opponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment. In March 2004, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the amendment, Lewis said, “I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on same-sex marriages.” He also referenced the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision in arguing in favor of full marriage rights for same-sex couples rather than civil unions, saying, “Separate is not equal. The right to liberty and happiness belong to each of us on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation.”
H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a national black LGBT rights organization, said that from his interaction with black lawmakers across the country he believes that there may not yet be a consensus on the issue of same-sex marriage. But when it comes to other forms of anti-gay discrimination in areas such as employment and housing, Robinson said at the state level the majority of black lawmakers in each state delegation they have worked with have been firmly opposed to anti-gay discrimination.
“Of course, there are exceptions in those caucuses, but by and large the black legislators are on our side, and interestingly enough I believe that often comes from their own political, personal convictions and not because they’re so connected to the gay rights movement,” said Robinson. He said that for some black lawmakers, supporting LGBT rights means courting the ire some of their constituents. What motivates them, he said, is their own experiences with discrimination and their understanding of what it means to be denied one’s civil rights.
“They’re doing it out of their sense of being convinced that not having protections in one’s job, they just sort of intuitively know it,” said Robinson.
He said convincing black lawmakers across the country to support same-sex marriage has been a greater challenge, in large part because in most states LGBT organizations have not built relationships with those lawmakers.
“I think where we really have found, quite frankly, some backtracking in that and lost some ground is that because much of that support [on employment, housing and other discrimination issues] didn’t necessarily come from any real connection with gay and lesbian people, when the issue of gay marriage came up people didn’t see it as discrimination as quickly,” said Robinson. He said Massachusetts has seen such strong support from the state’s black lawmakers partly because there are established relationships between those lawmakers and the LGBT community. He said activists have changed the minds of many black legislators around the country by presenting them with the stories of real couples that have faced tangible harms because of their inability to marry, and the key has been showing lawmakers the impact of discrimination in denying marriage to same-sex couples.
Robinson said pro-gay black lawmakers play an important role in the marriage debates because when it comes to persuading their colleagues, black lawmakers are perceived to have greater authenticity when it comes to speaking about civil rights issues.
“While civil rights belong to all Americans, the term is most closely identified with the Civil Rights Movement led by African Americans in this country. And having the validation, the imprimatur of folks who understand and, for lack of a better way of talking about it, [are] the keepers of that flame” can be an important factor in swaying their colleagues, Robinson said.
For Estes herself, the decision to speak out against the same-sex marriage ban was a matter of personal conviction, based on her own experiences of discrimination, particularly around marriage. She met the man who would later become her husband at age 26 while living in Florida, but they had to wait about six years to marry until the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which struck down laws against interracial marriage. Even then Estes, who grew up in a fundamentalist church, said that the only church that would marry them was a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Estes left behind the conservative church and became a Unitarian.
She said based on her own experiences with discrimination she never had any qualms about supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples. When she learned that the state legislature was going to vote on a constitutional amendment to deny those rights, she felt that she had to speak up.
“When I saw that there was a constitutional amendment, that was the thing that really angered me, and I testified in front the of the judiciary committee, because [the amendment was] enshrining discrimination in a constitution for some silly reason,” said Estes. “Nobody is going to affect you by loving someone else. It’s not going to happen. And I thought, this is the same crap I went through 40 years ago, the same garbage.”
She said the response to her speech has been largely positive, including some e-mails from gay New Hampshire residents thanking her for her speech. She said she has been somewhat distressed to get calls from black constituents taking issue with her comparison of discrimination against black people and LGBT people.
“I had quite a few calls from black people who tell me I’m wrong to equate civil rights, and [my response is], get out of my life… You’re trying to slice discrimination, and it’s all one broad brush pallet,” said Estes.
Not that she’s worried about any backlash for her support for same-sex marriage. Estes, a freshman lawmaker and a retired information technologist, said she ran in 2006 with the intention of serving only one term and focusing on improving the state’s computer systems and enhancing the state Department of Information Technology. She said she made her speech as a matter of conscience, not as a way to score political points.
“The things that I’m voting for, I’m voting my conscience. I don’t want to tee off my constituents, but they knew what I was when I was elected,” said Estes.