The Real Lesson of North Carolina’s Amendment 1

Pundits are obsessing over what black voters think about same-sex marriage. It's the wrong question. Strong, new coalitions are growing around a far broader social justice fight for all the relationships and families the right fears and demonizes.

By Kenyon Farrow May 11, 2012

President Obama’s public support of same-sex marriage helped upright the frowns of many LGBT marriage activists. The president’s endorsement came the day after North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment to ban recognition of any form of relationship that is not a legally married hetereosexual couple. While the passing of Amendment 1 may seem like a big blow to same sex-marriage activists, the grassroots organizing that came together to fight it may actually be the most important win for North Carolina, and a sign that activists in the state are building a better social justice infrastructure for the future.

What’s most important for the gay marriage advocates to remember is that Amendment 1 was never just about same sex marriage–that was already illegal in North Carolina. The bill was written and heavily promoted by Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing legal advocacy group, and bans all legal protections for unmarried people. It ends people’s ability to get health insurance under domestic partnership plans. The bill even threatens the rights of unmarried parents to visit their children.

While this has been true in many of the now-30 constitutional amendments at the state level, the LGBT organizations have failed, in their desire to win "marriage equality," to get ahead of the right-wing message to really paint it for what it is: a religious conservative policy agenda to remove anything resembling state support for "inappropriate" gender, romantic or sexual relationships. That includes, but is not limited to, same-sex marriage.

Queers for Economic Justice, the organization I used to work for, has argued for a decade that queer organizers need to be engaged in battles against the Welfare Reform Act because of the narrow way in which it defines who or what is a parent or family, and then creates policies that criminalize everything outside of that frame. Instead, most campaigns run by equality organizations have tried to paint lesbian and gay families as those undeserving of such draconian definitions, instead of organizing against the categories themselves.

Predictably, the right wing legislators and advocacy groups pushing this amendment framed this as a bill to "protect traditional marriage." Although that is often a code for anti-gay marriage, they’ve used that frame to argue against social safety net programs for the poor, and paint unmarried families and single-parent households with the same brush.

Luckily, organizations in North Carolina built broad coalitions to speak to the different constituencies that would be impacted by the legislation. The All Of Us NC coalition was endorsed by over 135 organizations from across the state, ranging from LGBT groups, child and family welfare advocates, civil rights groups, civil libertarians, students, businesses, and even faith-based institutions.

Of course, the Protect NC Families Coalition had some of the usual suspects. The steering committee included the North Carolina Branch of the ACLU, Equality NC, and Human Rights Campaign. But what likely made the framework of the campaign reach such a broad base was the participation of Southerners on New Ground, a queer regional organization that values grassroots organizing, long-term movement building and broad base coalition. SONG arose out of black and white lesbian women organizers including Mandy Carter, Pat Hussain and Mab Segrest, who’d been active in anti-Klan and anti right-wing organizing in North Carolina in the 1980’s.

The Protect NC Families Coalition released a video showing the bill’s impact on domestic violence criminal cases where the couples are not married. Whatever you think of police intervention, it showed a very different way the law would impact North Carolinians who might otherwise vote for an "anti gay marriage" bill.

Being a part of the Bible Belt and the Black Belt, Amendment 1 was going to be contested on both racial and religious grounds. In previous state battles, same-sex marriage advocates have largely failed to work well with presumably straight black Christian institutions. In North Carolina, one of the most impactful messengers was William J. Barber, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro who is also head of the North Carolina NAACP. His Sunday sermon, was broadcasted on MSNBC the next day and is probably one of the most eloquent speeches from a black minister on why African-Americans, whether they like gay marriage or not, shouldn’t vote for such legislation. Barber said, in part:

"When they polled people they asked, ‘How do you feel about same-sex marriage?’ but that’s not the question on the ballot, and it shouldn’t have been asked," said Rev. Barber. "The question should have been ‘Do you believe in a states rights strategy that seeks to trump the federal protections of the 14th Amendment?’ We know what a Trojan Horse looks like. Troy may have been fooled, but we are not."

I have long argued that the half-baked comparisons to the civil rights movement by same-sex marriage opponents was a losing strategy among African-American, but Barber, because he is Black, and a brilliant speaker, was able to do what most of the LGBT led campaigns at the state level have failed to do: connect the anti same-sex marriage strategy to the Tea Party, and other racist conservative configurations.

While Barber may have been the most out front Black minister, he was not the only minister working against this bill. Rev. Phil Cousin (who’s actually my cousin), pastor of St. James AME Church spoke out against it. Rev. Cousin is also the Chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People who also voted to not support Amendment 1.

While progressives need to take seriously the electoral strategies to get people to the polls when fighting these kinds of bills, the Right has not, in its long term strategy, imagined the kinds of long-term potential for progressive infrastructure that gets built when organizations come together to fight these bills. And local organizers have every reason to consider this fight a win for long-term solutions on beating back right-wing attacks.

"Our win is humongous," said Kai Lumumba Barrow, SONG organizer in a video the group put out the day after the amendment passed. "Because our dialogue is not just about gay marriage. It’s moving toward a dialogue about what does it mean for poor people, people of color, queer people coming together to fight for each other’s liberation. This amendment made that possible."

Kenyon Farrow is a regular contributor to