Election 2014  
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Can Black Women Lead on Rethinking Marriage?

Why black voters may be skeptical of marriage equality for reasons that have nothing to do with homophobia.

One highlight of Election Day 2012: voters in Maryland, Washington and Maine deciding, with their ballots, whether people in same-sex relationships will be allowed to marry.

Black voters in those states -- especially Maryland, which is nearly one-third African American – may need to take cover. We know about the backlash black Californians faced after Prop. 8 passed. We also know about National Organization for Marriage's cynical efforts to drive a wedge between black and gay Americans.

But what we don't know and what I'd love for some exit poll to find out is whether black voters -- especially straight black women -- actually are skeptical of marriage equality for reasons that have nothing to do with homophobia. Could it be that we're not motivated to support these initiatives because we're not convinced that marriage should grant access to human rights in the first place?

Beyond Wedded Union

If black women are holding out for something better than marriage, then we're acting in our own self-interest. According to a review of 2010 Census data and as reported last year, black women are at the vanguard of reframing family for the 21st century: "Among African-Americans, U.S. households headed by women -- mostly single mothers but also adult women living with siblings or elderly parents -- represented roughly 30% of all African-American households, compared with the 28% share of married-couple African-American households. It was the first time the number of female-headed households surpassed those of married couples among any race group.

When these heads of household go to the polls, they may be thinking about their own desire to directly access quality healthcare or tax breaks, not whether the inability to marry is keeping someone else from the circuitous route people in the United States have come to accept.

The women described above may soon set aside any acceptance of stigma and instead start to see themselves as a political constituency. And once this happens, the same-sex marriage conversation will be forever changed. Bigots may find themselves starved for attention as the movement is forced to confront legitimate push-back.

I know that for some, that vision -- outlined clearly in the Beyond Marriage statement is too farsighted for someone who faces deportation tomorrow because they can't marry the person they love today. I know that Salt Lake City's mutual commitment registry is too local for that Texan whose heart is breaking because she can't visit her hospitalized partner. And I can see why the history of the fight to pass the federal Comprehensive Child Development Act in the early '70s is of no consolation to the person who lacks rights to the child they're raising today.

That said, these examples and the work of campaigns such as Strong Families have been sources of inspiration for me as someone who worries about the marriage equality movement's blind spots. They've helped me and others understand who gets hurt when romantic and sexual relationships registered with the state (as opposed to, say, familial or friendship bonds) are privileged under the law.

There are alternatives to treating marriage as the brass ring, and progressive family economic policy -- accessible to all Americans, regardless of marital status -- is the goal that makes the most sense for a growing number of us.

The War On (Single) Women

Of course, even if we got all progressives on board with that goal, we'd face a real fight from the Right. Conservative rhetoric and policy have long depended on the demonization of unmarried women -- from Nixon's veto of a universal childcare bill four decades ago followed by Reagan's welfare queens to Rick Santorum, during this year's primary season, asserting that the way to "reduce the Democratic advantage" is to build traditional two-parent families. Through the years, the right's underlying argument has been consistent: Within the traditional, patriarchal family structure, daddy provides so government doesn't have to, and that's a good thing.