PHILADELPHIA -- Soon after joining the civil rights organization five years ago, Ella K. Coffee agreed to invest hundreds of dollars to become a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A 43-year-old Tampa, Florida, resident who has been with her wife for 12 years, Coffee says she wanted to make a difference in her local community, including in the lives of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
But she finds firm-footed and vocal support for LGBT issues among the general membership of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization is hit or miss. “I want the same things that everybody else wants – freedom and equality,” Coffee said as she sat among women leaders attending an empowerment forum at this year’s national convention.
Within the last several years, the NAACP has come out in support of marriage equality as a civil right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. It also stood in opposition of state-level same-sex marriage bans and federal restrictions on partner benefits. But leaders in the organization, whose traditions are rooted in the historically gay-averse black church, have acknowledged that an ongoing soul-searching around LGBT issues among NAACP officials has shaped how openly the organization discusses the topic, even as support for same-sex marriage among African-Americans has increased.
“Don’t make it a triple negative, that I’m black, woman and gay,” said Coffee, who has helped raise her wife’s two children from a previous relationship and took in her nephew. “I’m productive in my community, and not someone who should be shunned.”
— Ben Jealous (@BenJealous) June 26, 2015
During the NAACP convention, last month’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide didn’t appear to have changed many minds. Judging from the audience reaction during the handful of occasions that same-sex marriage was mentioned, the issue doesn’t go over as well with members as protecting voting rights, combating police brutality and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Some NAACP members who were asked about the issue cited their strictly-held religious beliefs as the reason they didn’t personally support same-sex marriage.
But Coffee and other gay-rights advocates at the convention said a lack of legal protections for LGBT people against workplace and housing discrimination in more than half of U.S. states should be among the next civil rights battles for the NAACP. Violence against transgender women of color continues to be much higher than the rate for violence against cisgender women.
Burma Shipman, a 63-year-old secretary of the Greensboro, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP, said she understands why marriage equality has been interpreted by the organization as a civil right. “I don’t agree with everything [because of what the Bible says about homosexuality], but people have a civil right," Shipman said. "There should be equality for all.”
Support for same-sex marriage among African-Americans has consistently been lower than support among whites, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life survey. In 2004, when marriage equality at the state level started to gain national attention, black support dropped seven points to 21 percent, down from 28 percent just one year prior. The support among whites did not see a noticeable drop over the same time. In 2015, 41 percent of blacks support same-sex marriage, compared with 59 percent of whites, Pew found.
The NAACP first addressed marriage as a civil right in 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia declared laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. In 2008, the organization publicly opposed California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages that was passed by a narrow majority of voters that year.
The NAACP voted in 2012 to support marriage equality as a right rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The resolution read: "The NAACP Constitution affirmatively states our objective to ensure the 'political, educational, social and economic equality' of all people. Therefore, the NAACP has opposed and will continue to oppose any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens."
NAACP officials also opposed a gay marriage ban in North Carolina and supported a decision by the Obama administration to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act that banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions performed in states where it was already legal.
“Many organizations followed our lead and today marriage equality is the law of the land,” said Roslyn Brock, chair of NAACP's national board of directors, in a keynote address during the convention on Sunday. She credited NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond, the veteran civil rights activist, and Alice Huffman, the NAACP California-Hawaii state conference president, for urging the creation of an LGBT taskforce within the organization.
“The NAACP is indeed pursuing liberty and justice for all,” Brock added.
Brock didn’t utter the words “gay” or “lesbian” during her remarks. Nonetheless, the sentiments elicited some rumblings of disapproval among the hundreds seated in a large hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center where she spoke. A panel on LGBT rights was canceled on Tuesday after organizers said they had run out of time.
Instead, the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, director for faith partnerships and mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign, was allowed to share remarks with the approximately 4,000 attendees gathered for President Barack Obama’s speech on criminal justice reform late Tuesday. “In 29 states, you can be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” Flournoy said. “Where is the justice in that?”
The audience seemed to perk up when Flournoy challenged the homophobic attitudes and “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance toward LGBT individuals in many black churches. “Who has a gay member in the church?” he asked. “Who's in the pulpit? Stop and tell the truth! Who’s writing the gospel songs? We have to do work in the faith community. Not that we think alike, not that we agree theologically, but that once you experience the all-inclusive love of God, then you want to share that with everybody.”
Sammie Dow, the NAACP's youth and college division director, said he believes the organization has always stood on the side of equality for LGBT individuals. Through advocacy on criminal justice reform, voting rights, equality in education, the NAACP helps all minority groups, he said.
“When we raise the floor [on equality], we have no choice but to raise the ceiling,” to include the LGBT community, Dow said.