This week, after nine months of uncertain deliberations, legislators in Springfield narrowly passed a bill that made Illinois the fifteenth state to allow gay marriage. The Illinois Senate had passed the measure this past February, but the House, worried about a lack of support, had postponed a vote until now. It was a heavily-lobbied and heavily-publicized process, intensified by the emphasis placed on gay marriage by both advocates and opponents this legislative session. However, the fight was fought beyond both the halls of the Illinois legislature and the liberal urban and conservative rural populations most associated with the debate. It also played out on the South Side of Chicago, demonstrating a split in African-American politics over social issues.
Equality Illinois, a prominent LGBTQ lobbying organization, is one of the primary groups responsible for pushing this bill through the House. On June 17, after the failure of the Illinois House to bring the bill to a vote, Equality Illinois announced its intention to fundraise and spend $500,000, half of which would be used for an “educational campaign” in areas including Chicago. Equality Illinois Public Policy Director Randy Hannig says the group has “spent a lot of time and effort” on outreach to the city’s African-American community in response to the work of one the nation’s leading anti-gay marriage organizations, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Their tactic, Hanning says, was to “cause a rift between the gay community and the African-American community” in Chicago by funneling money to prominent South Side pastors and encouraging them to speak against gay marriage.
During a 2012 investigation into NOM’s finances, a Maine court seized and unsealed a confidential 2009 document entitled “National Strategy for Winning the Marriage Battle,” that offered an explicit description of methods for preventing the legalization of gay marriage “We aim, “it said, “to find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage; to develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right.” A section of this document titled “Not a Civil Right” Project, focuses on the importance of deliberately targeting black communities around the country, because “the majority of African-Americans…oppose gay marriage.” (At the time this article went to press, NOM could not be reached for comment.)
Many religious leaders on the South Side have been outspoken in the fight against gay marriage. In March, Rev. James T. Meeks, Pastor of the Salem Baptist Church in Pullman and a former Illinois state Senator, released a “robo-call” warning of the dangers of same-sex marriage and encouraging the community to contact their state representative that reached 200,000 households. The funding for the robo-calls, made on behalf of the Chicago-based African-American Clergy Coalition (AACC), has been linked by the Chicago Sun-Times back to NOM.
Despite the outspokenness of religious leaders like Meeks and the efforts of national anti-gay marriage organizations, fourteen of the twenty members of the Black Caucus in the House supported the measure, potentially reflecting sentiments about gay marriage on the South Side and in other predominantly black communities more accurately. This could be made more clear in the upcoming 2014 election cycle, during which members of the AACC plan to mobilize their communities to vote out representatives who supported the bill. For now though, gay marriage supporters like Hannig are confident about the progress the marriage equality movement is making on the South Side. Their strategy really failed at the end of the day; “he says of the bill’s opponents. “The vast majority of the House Black Caucus voted in favor. They wanted to be on the right side of history.”