By Thomas Allen Harris
In 2009 I first got the idea of doing short documentary around the issue of Marriage Equality after meeting Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing. I was interviewing Byron, a veteran Black Civil Rights activist, about his family and community photographs for our series Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR) Roadshow when producer Ann Bennett reminded me that Byron had been a central figure in the pivotal Massachusetts State Constitutional Convention on same sex marriage which gave new momentum to the national Marriage Equality movement as a Civil Rights issue.
Speaking with Byron about his work around Marriage Equality that afternoon completely transformed my thinking about the issue and for the first time, I clearly saw it as a Civil Rights issue. Until LGBT unions are recognized and protected by law just as heterosexual marriages are, we are nothing more than second-class citizens. After that fateful discussion with Byron, I became an advocate and determined to make a film about Rep. Rushing and Marriage Equality. As I began to research the film, I realized that there were a significant number of African Americans – straight allies and LGBT – who were central to the legalization of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts yet whose faces and stories were somehow often ignored or overlooked by the press.
This lack of visibility of African Americans and their support for Marriage Equality during the Massachusetts campaign is not surprising since it is in opposition to the dominant narrative around Black communities as both homophobic and against Marriage Equality. In the face of this narrative that is increasingly prevalent in the national media, I immediately saw the urgency of illuminating and highlighting the voices and perspectives of LGBT people of color in this growing movement for Civil Rights.
I received a commission from the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca All Access program in collaboration with 46664 and the Nelson Mandela Foundation and raised completion funds as part of ‘United States Artists’ launch of its own online fundraising platform, USA Projects (www.usaprojects.org). One of the first comments I received back then was from a veteran Gay filmmaker who said I was brave to engage in a public fundraising campaign for such a controversial issue and that he was certain that I would get a lot of negative fallout “from my community”. Yet, my experience was that many of my straight friends and colleagues supported Marriage Equality both in the course of making the film and in its initial showing. I realized also that on a state and national level, many African American legislators – especially those with a history rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, like Byron Rushing, saw Marriage Equality as Civil Rights issue.
Since starting the film, it’s amazing to see how President Obama’s position on Marriage Equality and equal rights for the LGBT community has evolved as the movement has grown with unprecedented momentum to become a national issue. For me, however, it’s puzzling to watch how the successes of the Marriage Equality movement continue to ignore the contributions of African Americans and yet are all to willing to lay the blame for the defeats of the movement – from California‘s Prop 8 to the recent referendum in North Carolina – at the doorstep of African American communities.
As an artist and journalist who has extensively researched and explored the ways Black representation has historically been manipulated in the media, I feel its imperative that we continue to be vigilant and to challenge emerging stereotypes that are branding African American communities as the new face of homophobia.
Thomas Allen Harris is currently funding his new film, Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People on the USA Projects.
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