Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Marriage Equality & Unfinished Business

by Rev . Dr. Nancy Wilson

It was a glorious day! It was the first day my marriage of 37 years to Paula was deemed legal in the state where we make our home—Florida!

But in the middle of our marriage equality celebration—there was a lesson about race. 

More than a dozen couples stood in the early morning air on Tuesday morning at the Manatee County Courthouse on January 6. Some were all dressed up, others not so much. All of them came out with smiles, waiving their licenses. The staff at the courthouse was full of smiles, happy tears, and heartfelt congratulations.

My tears were both happy and sad. One woman stood with us as we cheered the couples on. She was there in honor of her partner of many years, who died two years ago, too soon to enjoy the benefits of legal marriage.

I remembered all those who had gone before who never saw the day of marriage equality—and many who still suffer discrimination across this country and the world.

Pride welled up in the middle of every emotion.

I remembered that Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) started marrying couples almost 50 years ago. We knew it was right—and we knew it was a legal right we deserved. For decades we went to count clerk offices on Valentine’s Day, knowing we would be turned down, expecting it, making a witness anyway.

While most people thought we were on a fool’s errand, we knew in our hearts that we were paving the way for the day when we could legally be married.

Now, on a sunny day under a Florida sky, I accompanied all of these couples to the Manatee Courthouse. Significantly, this courthouse has gone through some renovation recently. The statue commemorating Confederate soldiers and generals, and waxing sentimental about “our Southern traditions and way of life,” was recently moved from being front and center in the square to a marginal place on the side. I made all the clergy go look at it, none of which had ever seen it before. They were astonished and appalled.

Now, a simple flagpole with an American flag stands in front of the courthouse.

This renovation is an improvement, but our work is not finished. Most of the people coming and going from the courthouse that morning, besides same-sex couples, were people of color. Now at least, they do not have to pass by the monument if they don’t seek it out.  But that monument needs to come down.

Even in this historic moment celebrating equality, the statue around the corner was a bitter reminder that there are deep, deep geysers of racism that surge forth in waves. They just simmer, go underground, and then re-emerge under new banners—such as “stand your ground,” or “stop and frisk.”

A few days from now, we will observe Martin Luther King Day again. Demonstrations against police violence against unarmed people of color continue. The lesson I draw from my lifetime of working at the intersection of race, sexuality, class, gender, and other issues is vigilance. We cannot rest!

Humanity has major, unfinished business around race and racism.

We pretend that we fixed things—or can survive—during those times when the geyser recedes and builds pressure.

We pretend we are helpless but efforts to resist racism work.  Abolitionists made slavery illegal in the 18th century. Black and White women worked together to challenge and almost eliminate vigilante lynchings in the early 20th century. So many people came together in the ‘60’s to eliminate segregation, gain voting rights, and secure freedom to marry—regardless of race.

In the 1990’s I had firsthand experience of the community policing movement in Los Angeles. Community members were policing their own neighborhoods and police felt more equipped to relate across lines of difference, but when 911 happened, community policing money went away and a militarized police force began to emerge. We abandoned the one strategy that seemed to be healing wounds, making policing safer, more effective, and accountable.

As crisis after crisis shocks us awake, we must remember those racist institutions are constructed by human beings.

As such, these institutions can be deconstructed. This is our unfinished business.

  • The prison industrial complex needs to be dismantled.
  • Community policing practices and policing reforms must be enacted.
  • Successful anti-poverty programs from the 1970’s should be revived.
  • Voting rights must be protected.
  • Immigrants must be valued as crucial to our communities.
  • We need marriage equality in Mississippi, Texas, and the Supreme Court!

Days after marriages began for all couples in Florida, I spoke as an openly lesbian pastor on a radio program in Jamaica. A high school principal had been outed and he was in hiding, suicidal, and receiving death threats.

I spoke out for a justice and compassion. In Jamaica, homosexuality is still a crime, and the social stigma is still lethal. There is unfinished business in our world.

Just as we need to decriminalize sexual minorities, we need to stop treating people of color as criminals.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people come from every race, class, and culture. In the United States, many now have the right to marry but few states protect our jobs. We can be fired for being LGBTQ with no recourse. When you combine that with the insidious impact of racism, LGBTQ people of color suffer from layer upon layer of oppression.

This year, When MCC congregations come together for Martin Luther King Day observations, we are urging every person to participate in a fast and pray vigil where each person will give up something important for 24 hours. Each one will pray and fast so they can be refreshed for the long walk to freedom. Won’t you join us?

We have to be vigilant, relentless. Tell the truth. Make the powers that be do the right thing.

After we fast and pray, we work for justice.

Photo via flickr user Zach Frailey 

Comments (3)

Gordon Harte

good wonderful things come
good wonderful things come to those who wait.. BUT FOR HOW LONG DO WE HAVE TO WAIT TO SEE FINAL JUSTICE FOR ALL. AND I DO mean..ALL.. GORDON OF oZ..

James Michael Reid (Totten-Reid)

Some 30 years ago all we had
Some 30 years ago all we had (outside MCC) was a symbolic Domestic Partnership in West Hollywood.
Joe and I were couple 37, I think.
We promised each other that we would marry only if it were legally recognized. Joe died before we could do that but I believe that his work with GRNL helped advance the cause.
I recognize that the work of our forebearers (Joe, Troy and others like yourself, Nancy) have brought us to this day.


I believe all love between
I believe all love between two people should be recognized as natural and should be legally recognized. My child who is transgender will not have as many barriers to break down thanks to fortitude and bravery of those who fought and are still fighting to break gender and race barriers.

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