If there is anyone who is God’s gift to a slow newsday, it is D.C. “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry.  Barry–now a member of the D.C. City Council–stunned gay activists when he announced in late April that he was opposed to same-sex marriage efforts in the district.

The former mayor, who has been married four times, rose to power in part because of his alliances with D.C.’s powerful–and mostly white–gay community.  So his prediction, as chronicled by the Washington Blade, that “[w]e may have a civil war.  The black community is just adamant against this,” came as quite a surprise in a city where the African American mayor and racially-diverse City Council routinely court the LGBT vote.


The story is a tough one to get right because it requires navigating the thorny issues of religion, race, and sexual orientation.  An AP story about the issue does a solid job of getting beyond the cliches and providing significant perspective for readers pondering the issue of how same-sex marriage is perceived by African Americans.

The issue is particularly complex in D.C., where nearly 60 percent of the residents are African-American. Of the five states that allow gay marriage –Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont –none has such a large makeup of blacks.

Activist Donna Payne knows just how complex the issue is for the black community.

A black preacher once told her she would be accepted into his church under one condition _ that she didn’t tell anyone she was a lesbian. Payne said keeping quiet wasn’t possible.

“That’s the conundrum in the African-American community,” Payne said. “They don’t want to talk about it, but they know you’re there.”

The influence of black churches was evident as the D.C. Council debated whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. As more than 100 mostly black protesters gathered outside city hall, council member Marion Barry, a longtime supporter of gay rights, rejected the measure and sided with ministers who he said “stand on the moral compass of God.”

I do think an explanatory quote from an opponent of same-sex marriage could have been higher in the story, to counterbalance the pro-gay explanatory quotes from Payne and Alexander, but this story does a lot of things right. It explains that the conflict is just not religious, but also about family. It frames the issue in the larger context of DC politics. And it gives all sides a chance to have their side explained.

I’d encourage people interested in covering the issue of same-sex marriage inside the African American community to also look at a piece by American University Prof. Angie Chuang at the Poynter Institute’s Diversity at Work where she also critiques the coverage and gives handy resources of people that may not be on most journalists’ Rolodex as well as some good reporting guidelines.

– Why do reporters often quote a gay source, a black source, but rarely a black gay source? “It’s very difficult to say there is an inherent conflict between the two,” he said, “when I stand here embodying both of them.”

– Does it occur to reporters that there are very few people of color in leadership positions in national gay-rights groups?

– Does that lead them to believe they should look for more diverse sources when representing that side of the story?