BALTIMORE Ezekiel Jackson is black and his wife is white. As Jackson campaigns to legalize gay marriage in Maryland, he likens the plight of same-sex couples to that of interracial couples, who were banned from marrying in the state until 1967.
Maryland was one of the last U.S. states to allow blacks and whites to marry, but on Tuesday it could become one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. Voters in Maine and Washington are also heading to the polls to decide whether to let gays and lesbians wed.
Six U.S. states and the District of Columbia already allow gay marriage, but the decisions were made by court rulings and legislative action.
Interracial couples used to travel from Maryland to nearby Washington D.C. to wed before the state ban was lifted. It is the same trip same-sex couples now make to marry.
"I couldn't help but make that comparison," said Jackson, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and the head of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
Black voters have traditionally been reliable foes of same-sex marriage. In Maryland, Emmett Burns, a prominent black pastor, has been a leading opponent of the referendum and says it is insulting to African Americans to describe marriage as a civil rights issue.
"When did sodomy get to be a civil right?" Burns said in an interview. "Two consenting adults can do what they want in private but you want to change the definition and make it marriage? No."
A quarter of the Maryland electorate is black and public opinion polls suggest the outcome of the referendum will be close.
"It was against the law for black people to be married to one another at one time," Ralph Moore, a community activist, said at a recent debate in Baltimore. "The definition of marriage has constantly been changed in this country."
"Black people should not be a part of denying rights," he said. "That's not how we got here."
Gay marriage campaigners say they are beginning to win over more black voters, boosted by President Barack Obama, who was the first U.S. president to support same-sex marriage and has endorsed the efforts in Maryland, Washington and Maine.
Black celebrities like hip hop moguls Jay-Z and Russell Simmons have also spoken out in support of same-sex marriage.
'MOTHERLESS OR FATHERLESS FAMILIES'
But in Maryland, some voters - black and white - will never be convinced. Last month, several dozen people gathered at a Christian center in Davidsonville for an event held by the Maryland Marriage Alliance - the main group opposing the referendum.
"When you say that a homosexual family is equal to mine, that's offensive to me," said David Austin Nimicks, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund. "We're talking about the intentional creation of motherless or fatherless families."
Three panelists made a case that expanding the right to marriage beyond heterosexual couples would weaken the institution and thus weaken the family.
"There's a reason the left is going after marriage," said Doug Mainwaring of the Capital Tea Party Patriots, who is gay. Family and the church are "a bulwark against government taking over our lives."
Mainwaring said allowing same-sex marriage will open the door to legalizing other kinds of unions, like "threesome relationships."
"They're trying to make this look so normal, so conservative, so appealing - they're just like you and me," he said of the campaign to legalize gay marriage.
Demographics are on the side of those pushing for expanded marriage rights. National polls consistently show more people support same-sex marriage than oppose it and that young people back same-sex marriage by a large margin.
Even Jackson, who is helping to lead the effort, said that until a few years ago, he was "very much against homosexuality." Then, he learned that a close childhood friend was gay.
He said the news forced him to reexamine his views.
"It wasn't someone throwing talking points at me that changed my mind. It was that I could relate it to something real," he said. "I think that's happened every time a group has changed their mind."
Carlton Smith, a founder of Baltimore Black Pride, said he does not personally plan to marry if the referendum passes. Smith, who is 49, says he has survived a lifetime of bullying from family members and fellow blacks and from the white gay community, and he hopes life will become easier for gay, black men in Baltimore.
"It will seem close to equality," he said. "We're not all there yet but it will be one more milestone I'll live to see."
(Editing by Jim Loney)