Minority Legislators Prove Key To Illinois Marriage Equality Victory


Illinois religious leaders supporting marriage equality

Following its playbook from other states, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) attempted to block marriage equality in Illinois through racial division. But while some advocates of equality singled out the 20-member
House Black Caucus for blame when the bill stalled in May, it was their votes made passage possible on Tuesday.

Fourteen Black Caucus members voted for the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, compared to just four who opposed (two effectively abstained by voting “present.”) The bill need 60 votes to pass and won 61 to 54 — making the Black Caucus votes a difference-maker. The members of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus also were nearly unanimous in supporting the bill. Black Caucus Chair Ken Dunkin (D), a co-sponsor of the bill, endorsed marriage equality as being “about equality and equal treatment under the law.”

Minority legislators have been among the most stalwart allies for LGBT equality for decades: in 1996, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted 342 to 67 to enact the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act (and Democrats backed it, 118 to 65), 17 African-American Representatives voted no, compared to just 14 who voted yes. All but one African-American member voted for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal in 2010 and just one voted against the Hate Crimes law in 2009. Today 39 of the 41 U.S. Representatives currently in the Congressional Black Caucus and at least 20 of the 24 Representatives in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus support marriage equality.

But NOM has embraced a strategy of seeking to divide and conquer the progressive coalition through deliberate race-baiting. Internal strategy memos revealed that the group sought to recruit “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.” Their stated aim was to “interrupt the attempt to equate gay with black, and sexual orientation with race,” and to make “support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity.” These divisive tactics were especially evident in the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign in California where, after one misleading exit poll showed strong minority support for eliminating marriage equality in the Golden State, some LGBT activists blamed those groups for its passage.

In Illinois, though many African-American pastors backed the bill,
NOM again sought to exploit racial divisions. The group spent $125,000 for robocalls to voters featuring African-American pastors opposed to LGBT equality. When a hoped-for May vote on the bill was postponed, NOM President Brian Brown boasted that “African-American pastors in Democratic Illinois” had shown that “redefining marriage is not inevitable.” Indeed, some laid the blame at the time at the feet of the Black Caucus, citing “stubborn resistance” to passing the bill before they could respond to the NOM-funded lobbying pastors’ onslaught.

Rep. Greg Harris (D), the bill’s chief sponsor, told ThinkProgress at the time that several members who were supportive of marriage equality were enduring “an intensive misinformation campaign” by these pastors and other anti-LGBT groups. He said those colleagues needed time to go home, explain what the bill really does, and “tell our side of the story.” Less than six months later, his June prediction that “You have steps forwards, you have set backs, you move ahead, and you finally win,” proved prescient — thanks, in large part, to the strong support by African-American and Latino legislators.