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Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele On Comparing Gay And Interracial Marriage Rights

Michael Steele On Comparing Gay And Interracial Marriage Rights

The issue of marriage equality continues to gain steam in the political media, with every Republican presidential candidate proposing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and most recently, NJ Gov. Chris Christie‘s veto of a marriage equality bill. A few weeks ago, former RNC Chairman Michael Steele got into a heated on-air debate with fellow MSNBC contributor John Heilemann over comparisons of marriage equality to the right of interracial couples to marry, and in part three of our exclusive interview, went into greater depth on the issue.

Early in his chairmanship, Michael Steele made the surprising move of coming out strongly against civil unions for same-sex couples, so his current position marks some progress on the issue, relatively speaking. At that time, however, the landscape for marriage equality looked quite a bit different than it does now. California had just passed Prop 8, and as many in the media pointed out at the time, it did so with overwhelming support from black voters.

To many, if not all, proponents of marriage equality, this didn’t make a whole lot of sense, given that many of the same arguments being used to deny gay people the right to marry were also used to justify laws against interracial marriage. However, many black people were offended by the overly-broad comparison inherent in phrases like “Gay is the new black.”

It is in the space between those extremes that Heilemann and Chairman Steele debated the issue on Now with Alex Wagner, with Heilemann making the point that civil rights issues like these ought not be subject to popular referendum, and Steele objecting to the comparison more broadly. I asked him about the exchange.

“Well, it was less about gay marriage, and more about how the issue of civil rights is perceived and held onto by many in the black community,” he began. “I’ve been very supportive of gay rights activists… I do not support gay marriage because of my own religious tenets and my faith tradition, but at the same time I do believe in making sure that gay individuals have full privileges and benefits, whether it’s insurance and health and all the other things that couples would have in a relationship, and I would argue the same for heterosexual couples. I don’t understand why you have a man and a woman who live together for 7, 8, 10 years, whatever, why they can’t enjoy the same type of benefits. A friend of mine said, ‘Well that’s because they can get married.’ I said, ‘Well now the state is going to dictate marriage? No, I don’t think so.’ More broadly speaking, I think that those contractual issues and rights should be made available.”

“But where I draw the line,” he continued, “is in equation of that struggle against the struggle….the 400 years of oppression and struggle of black people in this country. As a friend of mine from Baltimore said, when he saw that interview. ‘I nearly went through my television because when was the last time you were chained to a ship and shipped somewhere? When was the last time you were separated from your mother or your father and your sister or your brother because of the color of your skin?'”

“So there is a visceral reaction by a lot of African Americans not to begrudge the struggles of those who are gay and lesbian at all, not to take away from that, but there is a very bright line that has been drawn for a lot of black folks when it comes to making this sort of equal argument.”

We discussed the issue more narrowly, and while I disagree with the Chairman, there’s some merit to his point that even a perfect argument, executed clumsily, can be more alienating than persuasive. Here’s that portion of our interview:


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